December 2, 2013

TRUSTEE VIEWPOINT: Investing in a Sustainable Campus

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At the core of Cornell’s mission and its land grant status lies a commitment to addressing real and challenging problems, locally within New York State, as well as globally. This is evident across the University, including the University’s efforts to address climate change. In recent years, Cornell’s pace of investment in making our campus a “greener place to live” has increased dramatically. We have been named the fifth “coolest” school in America by the Sierra Club. Additionally, the Princeton Review has awarded the Big Red the highest score on its Green Honor Roll, a designation only 22 out of 832 colleges have received. Our leadership among our peers stems from the vision and initiatives advanced by the University and its students over the past two decades.

For example, the $58.5 million Lake Source Cooling (LSC) project, which was completed in 2000, is one of the most ambitious and innovative initiatives ever undertaken by an American university. The LSC provides the University with a method of cooling that eliminates refrigeration equipment, saving Cornell over 20 million kilowatt-hours of energy per year – enough to continuously supply energy to 2500 homes in Tompkins County. The project has heavily reduced Cornell’s reliance on fossil fuels. Furthermore, in 2009, two years after President Skorton signed the American College and Presidents Climate Commitment, the University began implementing the Climate Action Plan (CAP), a set of 19 initiatives that aims to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

Most recently, as part of ‘Moving Beyond Coal,’ the Ithaca campus is now coal-free, having been replaced with natural gas produced by Cornell’s new co-generation plant (CHP) — an $82 million addition to our heating infrastructure. The CHP, which allows the campus to generate most of its electrical power using natural gas, also recycles the heat made in the process. The CHP will have the capacity, moreover, to run on bio-fuel, if a plant-based fuel becomes feasible. Presently, we generate 85 percent of our electricity needs efficiently, compared to 15 percent in the past. CHP, along with an additional $46 million dollar series of efficiency improvement initiatives around campus, is just another transformative undertaking that will further cut costs, save energy and dramatically reduce our carbon footprint.

Cornell’s students have played a significant role in promoting a greener campus as well. Some of the notable student organizations include Lights off Cornell, Take Back the Tap, Big Red Bikes, the Sustainability Hub and Cornell University Sustainable Design. Additionally, in the past year a group of energy-conscious students has formed Energy Corps at Cornell University (ECCU). ECCU is an action-oriented student organization assisting in the implementation of cost effective energy saving technology in University buildings. Here, project leaders gain experience in energy consulting and management, while working to reduce the University’s carbon emissions. Through ECCU, students have implemented five projects on campus, projected to save the University in excess of $150,000 over the next five years, while reducing our carbon dioxide emissions by over 970 tons.

One initiative that ECCU has been working on is creating, in particular, a Green Revolving Fund (GRF). The Green Revolving Fund aims to increase research and educational opportunities related to sustainability, as well as providing the University with a regenerative investment vehicle for capturing utility savings substantially into the future. Nationally, there are over 80 GRF’s operating in higher education institutions, with $111 million in capital committed to the funds currently in existence. In creating Cornell’s GRF, the University becomes a part of the Billion Dollar Green Challenge, launched by the Sustainable Endowment Institute. The Challenge strives to encourage universities, colleges, and other non-profits to invest a combined total of a billion dollars in revolving funds that seek to improve energy efficiency. Further, in joining The Challenge, Cornell gains access to valuable tools that include project performance tracking and a searchable library of projects at our peer institutions, among other benefits.

Most significantly, Cornell’s GRF has set a goal of raising one million dollars from within our Cornell Community by March, 2014. And as trustees, we look forward to learning of the results, and encouraging further investment in this great, student-led initiative.