February 13, 2013

EDITORIAL: Moving Ahead With a Green Revolving Fund

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Last Thursday, President David Skorton announced in an email to members of the Student Assembly that he is considering approving a one-million dollar loan to help establish a Green Revolving Fund for the University. A revolving fund could allow the University to dedicate a lump sum of money for allocation to projects that encourage energy conservation and carbon footprint reduction on campus. We are eager to bear witness to the multitude of innovative sustainability projects that would surely arise at Cornell as the result of a GRF. While a million-dollar down payment carries a high price tag, we are confident that these projects, if executed properly, could generate the funds need to repay the University with interest. We urge President Skorton to turn this consideration into a commitment.

If a GRF were established, funds could be invested in specific projects, and the returns on those investments recycled back into the fund for reinvestment in other projects. Money saved by the conservation practices implemented by the projects could replenish the fund — generating an even larger pool of resources for Cornellians to draw upon for future projects. The revolving configuration of such a fund would ensure its longevity and, ideally, ensure that the University recoups its initial investment. Cornell should move ahead with purpose to budget the seed money necessary to launch this fund, which would undoubtedly create more opportunities for students to get involved in environmental research and education.

Various other universities, including many of Cornell’s peer institutions, have implemented similar funds to great success. Harvard University’s Green Loan Fund, for instance, offers “up-front capital” to finance departmental projects that promise to “reduce the university’s environmental impacts.” Recipients of the GLF use savings generated by achieved reductions in waste removal and consumption costs to pay back the loan. According to a 2011 study by the Sustainable Endowments Institute, Harvard’s GLF boasts an average payback period of three years and an approximately 30 percent annual return on investment. Similarly, Stanford University’s Whole Building Energy Retrofit Program claims an average payback period of four to five years and a 23 percent ROI.

By investing directly in Cornell-specific projects undertaken by departments and individuals, the University can support energy conservation while still prioritizing its fiscal well-being. Projects deemed eligible to be financed by a GRF could be required to promote sustainable practices on campus while simultaneously reducing University maintenance costs. Furthermore, enacting regulations that require timely payback to the fund would help ensure that only feasible projects were pursued.

In an editorial last month, we asserted that divesting from the traditional energy sector would not be the best step, financially or academically, for the University to take at this time. Our critics were vocal. But we feel that a GRF is a prime example of an alternative option the administration can support to promote energy conservation efforts at Cornell. Unlike divestment, the establishment of a GRF would neither require Cornell to pass judgment on legal business practices nor directly touch its endowment. A GRF would promote sustainable practices on campus and in turn encourage Cornellians to be environmentally friendly even beyond the Hill. We implore President Skorton to take the leap.