Growing up green: US colleges witness an environmental groundswell

A surge of interest in renewable energy and sustainability in general is prompting educational establishments to respond, not just by improving campus environmental performance, but by offering the courses and training that match a growing marketplace. Elisa Wood reports.

Climate change is the ‘space race’ for this generation, US Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton tells young voters. Democratic rival Barack Obama urges them to be the leaders who prevent ‘global catastrophe’, while John McCain, the likely Republican nominee, praises young people for taking on an issue larger than themselves.

As election fever grows in the US these candidates are wisely tapping into a growing pro-green sentiment on college campuses. The groundswell is reflected in the burgeoning number of renewable energy clubs, an array of new class offerings on sustainable practices, and the large number of graduates heading into clean energy jobs.

As a result, students are lobbying administrators to make green energy purchases, erect wind turbines and install solar panels. And administrators are listening, creating strong opportunities for renewables at the nation’s 4100 colleges, which together create a US $317 billion industry.

Recent months have seen colleges announce myriad green energy projects. Babson College, for instance, has said it will become the first Boston-area college to build an on-site wind turbine, the result of a proposal by three graduate students. Oregon’s Lewis & Clark, which already secures 30% of its electricity from green energy thanks to voluntary student donations, unveiled a partnership with Honeywell International to install solar panels at a campus sports facility. Students at the University of Colorado in Boulder agreed to put $50,000 a year in their student funds toward wind energy.

These are just a few of the hundreds of the college sustainability efforts tracked by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), which helps US and Canadian colleges cultivate earth-friendly practices. AASHE publishes an annual digest of green efforts on campuses and the number of colleges in the digest jumped from 250 in 2005 to 629 in 2006, the latest year available.

The Kentucky-based organization is itself an example of how much interest has intensified. Begun just two years ago, AASHE has seen membership grow from 40 to more than 500 colleges, universities, businesses and organizations. Members include big names such as Harvard, Princeton and Stanford universities and MIT for example.

This growth may be just the tip of the iceberg, according to the Apollo Institute’s New Campus Report, which states: ‘College and university campuses are uniquely placed to affect America’s energy future. The higher education sector is a
$317 billion industry that educates and employs millions of people, maintains thousands of buildings and owns millions of acres of land. It spends billions of dollars on fuel, energy and infrastructure. And the footprint of higher education is widening – enrolment between 2000 and 2013 is expected to increase by 23%.’

Among the 200 colleges in North America with the largest endowments, 37% now purchase renewable energy and 30% produce their own wind or solar energy, according to the College Sustainability Report Card 2008. Published by the Sustainable Endowments Institute, the report looked at schools with endowments that range from $230 million to nearly $35 billion. It found a ‘green groundswell’ with almost 45% of colleges committing to fight climate change, 59% using green building standards in new construction and 42% purchasing hybrid or electric vehicles.

‘It used to be that the football star won the girls; these days it is the head of the college renewable energy club,’ jokes Ron Kenedi, vice president, Sharp Solar Energy Solutions Group. But, as the expression goes, many a true word is spoken in jest.

Clean energy love

Given the rapid installation rate of on-site renewable energy, AASHE predicts that soon more campuses will have green power than not. ‘In many cases, students are the drivers. It is public awareness, largely around global warming and potential energy scarcity that has led to a demand from students for these changes,’ says Judy Walton, AASHE acting executive director.

Students are promoting clean energy not only by creating campus organizations, but also by uniting into multi-college groups. One ‘very powerful’ group, Walton says, is the Energy Action Coalition, comprised of 50 student-led organizations. The group was instrumental in attracting more than 5500 students to Washington, DC, in November for the first youth summit on climate change. Energy Action said it timed the convergence on Capitol Hill to be one-year before the 2008 Presidential election. The idea was to send a message to the candidates and Congress that a growing youth movement wants bold political leadership on green energy.

More recently, on Valentine’s Day, Energy Action members in Michigan sent cards to state lawmakers as part of a programme called They asked the legislators to support a renewable portfolio standard of at least 25% by 2025 and increase energy efficiency 2% annually through 2015. The group also pushed for the state to institute integrated resource planning for utilities, which takes into account energy efficiency options. The group also lobbied for a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants in Michigan.

Energy Action has also called upon students to reject the ritual of heading to the beach to party over the March spring break, due as REW goes to press. Instead, Energy Action members will take a trip to coal country: Ohio and Virginia. The ‘Mountain Justice Spring Break’ offers a chance to help clean a coal-soiled river, protest mountain-top coal removal, and attend workshops on the life-cycle of coal.

‘All over the country students have already set in motion a clean energy revolution on campuses by successfully demanding that their schools phase out dirty energy and commit to efficiency and truly clean energy sources,’ says Brianna Cayo Cotter, Communications Director for the Energy Action Coalition. ‘At Mountain Justice Spring Break youths are making sure that their communities and this country follow suit,’ she adds.

College presidents do seem to be following suit – or perhaps leading the way alongside their students. About 500 college presidents have signed the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment. Members agree to set up plans that will make their campuses climate-neutral within a specific time period through energy conservation, renewable energy, offsets and other strategies. Pennsylvania’s Lafayette College joined Climate Commitment in January, shortly after technology students finished a two-semester project on how to make the campus green, which offered ideas for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

As part of the Commitment, college presidents must integrate sustainability into the curriculum. This, combined with the growing number of ‘green collar’ jobs, has led to several new courses and degree-granting programmes that focus on green alternatives.

For example, Stanford University, University of Michigan and Yale University now all offer joint degrees through their business and environmental schools. The University of California Berkeley has 250 faculty members and 375 classes available that focus on the environment. In all, the university offers 51 graduate and 35 undergraduate environmental degrees, with energy research as a strong component of many of these. The University of Virginia has integrated sustainability studies into architecture, engineering, business and other disciplines in response to strong demand. Meanwhile, several two-year community colleges are dedicating themselves to training the more than 5000 solar installers the US forecasts it will need by 2015.

Selling sustainability

These new programmes are finding a ready market for graduates. The number of corporate social responsibility jobs has jumped by 37% per year over the past three and a half years, according to a survey of job postings conducted by Ellen Weinreb Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Recruiting and Net Impact, a group that cultivates social consciousness in business leaders. The report found the fastest growth in environmental jobs, especially in clean technology, consumer products and public relations. Hubs for the jobs are London, San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles and Boston.

Ellen Weinreb credits Wal-mart with driving a large part of the growth in the sustainability job market. ‘Wal-mart is raising the bar by encouraging its suppliers to ramp up their sustainability efforts, and the sustainability jobs follow,’ she says.

The report also found that CSR jobs are emerging in public relations, where agencies are called upon to form green strategies for clients. In addition, finance students are being offered jobs that involve emissions trading, green venture capital and green investment banks.

The average annual pay for these jobs is $67,000, according to the survey, but the money is not what attracts students to these professions. Ken Siegel, President of The Impact Group, organizational psychologists who work with senior management at major corporations, points out that, typically, salary ranks as the fourth or fifth reason people pursue work. ‘No one wants to work for free. The absence of money causes problems. But the presence of it does not produce satisfaction,’ he says.

Instead, this generation’s desire to work in sustainable fields reflects a shift in societal values from exploitation toward ‘honouring and conservation,’ he adds, saying this new trend is ‘one of the most psychologically hopeful changes that I’ve noticed among the workforce.’

Altruism is not unique to today’s young workers, but they seem to be pursuing meaningful work at an earlier age, Siegel says. He suggests that previous generations said, ‘I’ll do well for the first three quarters of my career and think about doing good in the last quarter,’ but that they pursue doing well for so long that doing good gets sacrificed. ‘In their 60s, they want to give back. But they never get around to it,’ he says.

Today’s young workers are also driven toward green energy professions because they are experiencing the immediate impact of living in a country that is dependent on fossil fuels – volatile energy prices, conflict in the Middle East, pollution and fears surrounding climate change. ‘It is the sheer realization that not paying attention to energy and resources will impact them in their lifetime. It is far more immediate for them. If every time you lit up a cigarette a piece of your skin dropped off, you would not smoke,’ he says.

Colleges reach into communities

Many colleges are moving a step beyond training students for renewable jobs. They are also reaching into the community to help cultivate an economy that values the work. For example, the University of Massachusetts (UMASS) signed an agreement with the state government in February saying it shared the state’s commitment to renewable energy. The college agreed to co-operative research, education, and public service activities to help bolster the state’s clean energy industry. Massachusetts clean energy sector employs more than 14,400 workers. It expects this number to grow to 75,000 workers in a decade.

UMASS now has 120 faculty members in clean energy-related research and teaching, and has already spun off two clean energy companies, Konarka and SunEthanol. The university has also helped the state become home to a wind technology testing centre for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). Furthermore, with the nation’s first proposed offshore wind project, the 420 MW Cape Wind, on its doorstep, the university is making offshore wind study one of its main research areas. UMASS is also studying advanced polymers and nano-materials for photovoltaics, fuel cells and batteries; residential photovoltaic systems; cellulosic biofuels; microbial fuel cells; geothermal energy; wave energy; smart growth; efficiency and economic analysis of climate change.

Meanwhile, colleges are also teaming up with the state of New York to help with its $6 million clean energy workforce training initiative. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority plans to spend $2 million on solar workforce training at two-year community colleges across the state. The programme is geared toward training workers to design, install and maintain renewable energy systems.

In Vermont, Middlebury College offers a range of workshops and conferences to help educate the surrounding community – and the wider world – about clean energy. Indeed, while sustainability is a relatively new idea on many campuses, Middlebury College has been focusing on the issue for decades. The Vermont institution has the oldest undergraduate environmental studies programme in the nation, which began in 1965. Since then, the college has initiated a host of green initiatives, including construction of an $11 million wood chip-fired cogeneration system that cuts campus use of fuel oil by half. Now it is experimenting with growing 30 varieties of willow on fallow acreage to provide fuel.

Middlebury College trustees voted in 2004 to reduce carbon emissions to 8% below 1990 levels by 2012. Two years later students asked trustees to pursue a more ambitious goal of making the college carbon neutral by 2016. After students, faculty and staff worked out a specific plan to reach the goal, the trustees accepted the challenge. The college is taking a varied approach to reducing its environmental footprint. Middlebury switched to 20% biofuel to heat smaller buildings, set up green building guidelines for new construction and purchased carbon offsets. At the same time, college students have formed a climate change action group modelled after the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Called the Sunday Night Group, it emerged from a conference at the college that examined why society has not been quicker to pursue climate change solutions.

Identifying the STARS

The next step for higher education is to determine just how effectively campus green programmes are achieving their goals. To that end, AASHE is developing a Sustainability Tracking, Assessment, and Rating System (STARS). Ninety college campuses have agreed to participate in testing the system, which AASHE says is similar to the US Leadership in Energy Environmental Design (LEED), a national rating created by the US Green Building Council. However, unlike LEED, STARS will rate the entire campus, not just one building, and will consider social responsibility as well as environmental accomplishment.

Campuses earn credits in three categories: curriculum and research; operations; and administration and finance. AASHE hopes the rating system will allow for comparisons of college programmes through a common standard of measurement and create incentives for improvement. Among other things, STARS measures the energy intensity at the college, renewable energy consumption and emissions reductions over time.

‘STARS has shifted the sustainability scene on campuses. Campuses that are not doing anything, now have a road map. They can just pull STARS off the shelf and start working,’ Walton says.

While colleges often support – indeed even spearhead – student green energy efforts, some administrators remain sceptical. Walton argues that while it is hard to say there is active resistance, there is a lot of, ‘Well we can’t afford it or we’ll look into it,’ he says, adding: ‘With that type of resistance, students have to do a lot of homework, and keep pushing.’

Siegel says that it is also important that students and young workers receive strong support from society for green efforts, or over time their enthusiasm will flounder. ‘I’d love to be able to tell you that this generation is going to be different from a values perspective from ever other generation – that its values will be sustained. But any activity that is not reinforced extinguishes,’ he says. He adds that industry and government can reinforce interest in green energy jobs by treating them as highly valued professions that offer strong possibilities for promotion within an organization.

For now, though, it appears US colleges will continue to be a strong catalyst for green energy development. AASHE expects its membership to climb from 500 to 2000 over the next five years. That would put half of US colleges behind AASHE’s green mission, an achievement any social movement would envy.

Elisa Wood is US correspondent for Renewable Energy World.
You can contat Elisa Wood at

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