Earlier this month, students at the University of Illinois voted in student government elections. While turnout was low, some 5500 students cast ballots for senate and trustee candidates and for referenda on the ballot. The most popular measure on the ballot (receiving 77.1% support) was the Sustainable Campus referendum, which raises one of the campus environmental fees.

You may not know that students voted to create two different environmental fees in 2003 and 2007, both by ~70% margins of support. The fee created in 2003 is $2 per student assessed semesterly, and is restricted to clean energy and energy efficiency projects. The second fee, known as the Sustainable Campus Environment Fee, was created in 2007 in response to requests for funding for a broader range of environmental projects. This fee, a refundable $5 per semester, was up for increase to $14. Both of these fees are managed by the Student Sustainability Committee (SSC), a committee of 10 students, advised by 10 faculty and staff members. This referendum should provide $1.1 million in funding for sustainability on campus — for tangible projects that reduce the environmental impact of the University of Illinois.

Green fees have become a new and powerful tactic that student groups have used to make progress on sustainability issues at Universities, where administrators have different priorities. The University of Illinois was the first school in Illinois to pass such a fee, though several schools across the State have followed its lead — UIC passed its first green fee last week as well. While the fees at the University are modest, falling near the median level for campus environment fees, the size of the student body means that we will have the largest pool of student-allocated sustainability funding in the country.

To put things in perspective though, the University's annual energy bill is 75 times the size of the revenues that will be raised by campus green fees, an amount that has tripled in the past six years. While the community gets its power from power plants all over the Midwest, the University runs a coal and natural gas plant right in the middle of town, producing approximately 375,000 tons of CO2 annually — some two-thirds of their total emissions. As the campus prepares its climate action plan, a draft of which can be seen at the website of the Office of Sustainability: http://sustainability.illinois.edu/, we hope that it will aggressively reduce its energy consumption, and stop burning coal. When the first fee was passed in 2003, it was directed toward bringing a utility-scale 1.5MW wind turbine to the U of I, a project that was sat on by the administration and ultimately "indefinitely postponed" in December 2008.

These student funds have done a great deal of good in the past few years though. They helped fund the solar array and green roof atop the University's new Business Instructional Facility, helping it achieve LEED Platinum status. They've been helping to put occupancy sensors in classrooms and provide bike parking infrastructure. Two prairie installations, one completed and located near the College of Veterinary Medicine, and another in progress at Florida Ave and Orchard St, were supported through these funds. Also, the University now has a sustainable student farm (that's always looking for volunteers), at Lincoln Ave and Windsor Rd, that produced over 19,000 pounds of fresh vegetables and 4000 ounces of salad greens for use in University Dining Services.

Beyond the grant program though, the Committee has established a revolving loan program that helps fund energy conservation initiatives that save money and can pay for themselves over time. Buildings abound with these opportunities to save money — the University's retrocommissioning teams have been through 12 campus buildings so far, cutting energy consumption by close to 30%, with their work paying for itself in about two years. This is very successful way of funding projects — at Harvard University, their Green Campus Loan Fund has provided better returns than their famed endowment. The SSC has used this mechanism to fund lighting retrofits at the Activities and Recreation Center and at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts that together will save over $80,000 annually. The additional funds provided by raising the campus fees are expected to be primarily directed toward expanding this fund.

While students are funding some of these initiatives at the University, similar opportunities abound throughout the community. There is no reason why a ballot initiative cannot be considered to create a community environmental tax to make our cities more sustainable. Similarly, a city-sponsored loan fund for energy efficiency and renewables is also feasible. Such a program, often known as Property-Assessed Clean Energy (PACE), allows the City to aggregate together projects that different home-owners and businesses would like to carry out, and issue bonds to pay for them as a package. These loans are attached to the property and can be paid off in a manner similar to one's mortgage payments. Senator Frerichs is working to get the State to pass enabling legislation for this program, and the Cities will hopefully move to implement it sometime this year. As initial costs tend to be the primary barrier toward making our buildings more sustainable, this program could be a great opportunity to make our homes and businesses more sustainable, increase property values, and put people in local construction jobs back to work.