University Takes an Unconventional Path to Climate Action

With bold steps from campus leadership and a unique funding model, Weber State University creates a sustainability program that’s, well, sustainable

 

By Anne Frances Johnson

 

If the words “university climate action” bring to mind a band of passionate students locked in a heated battle with stodgy campus administrators, then you need to hear about Weber State University.

 

The school’s path toward sustainability has been unconventional from the beginning. No battles. Remarkably little in the way of heated campus politics. A lot of collaboration. And a lot of action.

 

As a follow-on to our series about climate action in Eugene, Oregon and Fort Collins, Colorado, we bring you the story of Weber State University, where administrators, staff, faculty, students and the broader community have joined forces to make considerable progress on campus sustainability.

 

The end of our Fort Collins story left us pondering a critical question: How can climate action become not only environmentally sustainable, but financially feasible for cities and institutions? With its emphasis on efficiency savings, strategic re-investment of funding and community-academic partnerships, the Weber State model just might offer some answers.

Replacing lighting with energy-efficient bulbs was one of the university’s first sustainability initiatives; cost savings on electricity bills were then rolled into more sustainability projects. Here, LED lights illuminate the university’s Dee Events Center arena. (Photo courtesy of Weber State University)

Replacing lighting with energy-efficient bulbs was one of the university’s first sustainability initiatives; cost savings on electricity bills were then rolled into more sustainability projects. Here, LED lights illuminate the university’s Dee Events Center arena. (Photo courtesy of Weber State University)

A community catalyst sparks a leadership commitment

Nestled in the foothills of the Rockies, Weber State educates 26,000 people at two Utah campuses. The vast majority of its students commute to campus; the student body is older, on average, than that of a typical university, and many students are married and have children. In short, it’s a somewhat atypical college environment, and it’s not one in which you’re likely to see the types of student-led protests and sit-ins that have tended to garner media attention around campus climate action in recent years.

 

But that hasn’t stopped the university from pushing the bounds on sustainability.

 

Alice Mulder, Ph.D., a faculty member in the geography department and director of the university’s new Sustainability Practices and Research Center, credits a community member for getting the ball rolling. In 2006, local resident Kathryn Lindquist, who was then serving on the university’s Board of Trustees, voiced her interest in fostering environmental awareness and sustainability initiatives at Weber State.

 

“[Ms. Lindquist] really served as a catalyst on our campus to find and bring together the core people on the faculty, in facilities management, and in the broader community to form the basis for what grew into a formalized sustainability committee on campus,” said Mulder.

 

Shortly after that effort, the university’s administration took up the cause—and ran with it. In 2007, Weber State President F. Ann Milner became one of the first college presidents to sign on to a climate commitment known as the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment, or ACUPCC. Faculty members formed a committee to guide campus sustainability efforts, the university issued its first emissions report in 2008, and in 2009 Weber State formally adopted a plan to become carbon-neutral by 2050.

 

With strong champions at the very top of the administration, the climate action plan faced virtually no opposition. The plan’s heavy emphasis on energy efficiency, in particular, seemed to hit home. “From a facilities management perspective, it just made sense to make the campus run more efficiently—not only from an emissions perspective, but from a cost perspective,” said Jenn Bodine, who was hired as the university’s first sustainability coordinator in the facilities management department as part of the climate action plan’s implementation.

 

Whereas most institutions seeking to increase energy efficiency hire outside consultants to convert existing systems to more efficient ones, Weber State decided instead to invest in building expertise in-house. The university created positions for an Energy Manager, Sustainability Coordinator and three construction technicians, allowing it to avoid third-party markups and keep all of the energy savings it netted.

A rooftop solar installation at the Davis campus reduces the school’s reliance on fossil fuels. The university is in the process of building a 7-acre solar installation that will generate nearly two megawatts of electricity. (Photo courtesy of Weber State University)

A rooftop solar installation at the Davis campus reduces the school’s reliance on fossil fuels. The university is in the process of building a 7-acre solar installation that will generate nearly two megawatts of electricity. (Photo courtesy of Weber State University)

Efficiency creates seed money for bigger investments

The university’s sustainability projects are supported by a $5 million revolving loan fund. Although the loan includes a three percent interest rate, 75 percent of the cost savings generated through the program are rolled back in to fuel additional projects. As a result, the more money the university saves by reducing energy and water consumption, the more money it has to spend on other sustainability projects.

 

“The financial model is one thing that makes Weber State quite unique,” said Bodine. “Right off the bat, we were pretty aggressive in looking for projects that would give us the fastest return on investment, with the idea being that we’d then have cash in the bank to invest in projects that might not have the greatest return on investment from a financial standpoint.”

 

For example, because it focused first on updating buildings’ lighting and insulation, which saves big-time on ongoing energy costs, the school is now able to afford programs with little or no financial return on investment, such as electric vehicle charging stations. While Bodine said she was eager to pursue trendy green innovations like rooftop gardens when she first came on board, the university’s razor-sharp focus on efficiency paid off, and ultimately made it possible to pursue many more projects than would have been feasible otherwise.

 

“This approach has worked really well and ultimately has made us more successful. In 2015, we realized over $1.6 million in utility savings, and we’re on track to save $1.7 million this fiscal year,” Bodine said.

 

Thanks to these savings, the university recently broke ground on a giant, 7-acre solar installation that will generate nearly two megawatts of energy, enough to almost entirely offset the electricity needs of the smaller of its two campuses. Another large project due to start soon is a large ground-source system that uses circulating water to efficiently heat and cool buildings.

 

The university also has set its sights on reducing transportation-related emissions. A portion of the campus facilities vehicle fleet is being converted to plug-in electric vehicles, hybrids and solar-powered golf carts. Since a large proportion of students commute to campus, the university has worked to encourage the use of public transit (through a community partnership that yielded a fast bus service from the town’s commuter rail station directly to campus and free transit passes for students, faculty and staff), bicycles (through a student-led effort to install bike racks and bike repair stations around campus), and fuel-efficient vehicles (through a parking-pass rebate program).

 

The school also launched the Sustainability Practices and Research Center, or SPARC, which serves as an academic hub and resource center for sustainability knowledge and practices both on- and off-campus. “Our hope is to help provide information, education and know-how—and potentially even service hours and research hours—to meet needs within our broader community, including government, non-profits and businesses in addition to our own campuses,” said Mulder, the center’s director.

 

One of SPARC’s first projects focused on helping local homeowners harness solar power for their homes. A similar effort is now underway to encourage the adoption of electric vehicles.

 

An opportunity to educate

New bike racks and bicycle repair stations help to encourage bike commuting.

New bike racks and bicycle repair stations help to encourage bike commuting.

Not every initiative has been adopted as readily or fully as one might hope. Somewhat surprisingly, recycling has proven to be a rather stubborn challenge. Bodine said a large number of students come from cities or counties without recycling facilities, so the university faces a tough task to teach students about why recycling is important and how to do it.

 

“Behavior change is probably one of the biggest things any campus or organization struggles with on sustainability,” said Bodine. “Being in facilities management, it has been quite easy to change out the lighting, add insulation, invest in solar panels, et cetera, but the hardest part of all is getting people to change their habits.”

 

A program that tracks and rewards sustainability activities within different departments has helped to incentivize some of that behavior change, Bodine said. By spurring departments to compete with each other for cash rewards and public recognition, the program helps to generate excitement for helping the university achieve its broader sustainability goals.

 

Another challenge has been getting academic programs caught up with the school’s emphasis on sustainability. Dan Bedford, Ph.D., a faculty member in the geography department, said sustainability issues could, and should, find their way into almost every academic discipline. “We’re trying to get sustainability integrated more broadly through the curriculum, but behavior change is also difficult among academics,” he said. “The push towards more interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary education is helpful, but it takes time. Academia is a notoriously conservative institution where it can be difficult to bring about radical changes.”

 

Mulder and Bodine recently co-taught a sustainability course along with a professor in the English department, one way of directly integrating sustainability into the academic sphere. In addition, the school is host to the Intermountain Sustainability Summit, an annual two-day regional conference that quickly gained steam after its humble start as a student project.

 

In its own facilities, in its academics, and in its community partnerships, it’s clear that Weber State University is investing in sustainability for the long haul. By steadily transforming its facilities and working to build a “culture of sustainability” on its campuses and beyond, the university hopes it is helping to prepare students to thrive in the workforce and communities of the future.

 

“We’re very much an institution that is not an island—our students are very much a part of the community, and the things we do here will ultimately spin out into the broader community,” said Bedford. “I think we’re doing our students a great service by exposing them to an institution that works in this way and thinks in this way.”

 

Anne Frances Johnson is founder and lead science writer of Creative Science Writing and a contributor to the Thriving Earth Exchange.