Helping Schools Explore Sustainability

Helping Schools Explore Sustainability

In 2008, The Duke Endowment launched a $500,000 initiative to help Davidson College, Duke University, Furman University and Johnson C. Smith University work together to become more sustainable in their use of energy and in their impact on the environment.

Furman, in Greenville, S.C., is home to 2,600 undergraduates. It relocated to its 750-acre campus in 1961. Johnson C. Smith, in the heart of Charlotte, has about 1,500 students. Its urban campus includes several historic buildings, including one built in 1884.

Angela HalfacreAngela Halfacre is head of The Duke Endowment’s Task Force on Sustainability.

Davidson, 25 minutes north of Charlotte, N.C., has a 450-acre campus and 1,700 students. Duke, in Durham, N.C., has 13,000 undergraduate and graduate students and 220 buildings on more than 8,000 acres.

The environmental collaboration began with a summit in Charlotte in October 2008. Since then, teams from the four institutions have been exploring curricular and co-curricular ideas, joint purchasing arrangements, a revolving loan fund to finance energy conservation efforts, and renewable energy options.

The Duke Endowment Task Force on Sustainability is chaired by Angela Halfacre, director of the David E. Shi Center for Sustainability and associate professor of political science at Furman. She describes the group’s work in the following interview.

As chair of the Task Force on Sustainability, what is your main role?

Primarily, I work with Susan McConnell (associate director of the Endowment’s Higher Education program area) to identify what the four schools need to facilitate conversations and create true collaboration among them. I became involved shortly after I assumed my role at Furman in the summer of 2008.

Who has been involved with the task force?

We have had involvement from the presidents, executive vice presidents, chief financial officers, facility services directors, energy managers, provosts, sustainability coordinators and faculty members. From the beginning, there was a high level of discussion and a sincere belief that collaboration among the four schools would be mutually beneficial. That really helped to set the stage for all of us.

The first summit in October 2008 included representatives from nearly two dozen schools from North Carolina and South Carolina – but the focus is now back on the four schools that The Duke Endowment supports, right?

The first summit was more of a learning experience for the benefit of the entire higher education sector of the two Carolinas, and Duke Energy was a corporate sponsor of the event. The conference was extremely useful, but it was more about sharing general information than being very specific as to what the individual schools might have needed. One of the outcomes of the conference was that three of the four schools signed up for comprehensive energy audits to help them accelerate their conservation efforts. Those audits were completed by early summer 2009.

What happened next?

There were ongoing conversations among the four schools. At one point, we were having weekly conference calls. Through these conversations, we decided to focus our efforts on assessing the financial viability of large solar arrays. We had another summit in February 2009 to learn from national solar experts. That gathering included 35 to 40 participants. Each of the schools brought five representatives; three presidents and an executive vice president attended.

What came out of that February 2009 summit?

It became pretty clear that we needed more information about the complexities of financing renewable energy in South Carolina and North Carolina. We studied the feasibility of the colleges jointly constructing a solar array on land owned by one campus. We identified two of the schools as pilots – Furman and Davidson – and Steven Strong with Solar Design Associates in Boston went to both of those schools to assess solar possibilities. Strong’s company focuses on solar implementation and infrastructure. We needed their expertise to identify what was possible.

Was it financially feasible to pursue a solar project?

By the close of 2009, after getting the solar assessments for two of the campuses, analyzing energy audits and working with various attorneys – as well as using various financial models provided by specialists at the North Carolina Solar Center – we realized that it was not going to be financially feasible for us to pursue a large collaborative solar project at the moment. However, we knew the scope and parameters to revisit in the future.

Was that a setback?

Yes, but not totally. (Former Davidson President) Tom Ross effectively characterized it by saying that if any one of our schools had tried to do this complex analysis all alone, it would have taken a lot more time and energy. We now have the energy audits to provide a baseline, we have the solar assessments for the two schools and we know whom we need to talk to in terms of attorneys and financial advice.

Furman, for example, recently received a large grant from the South Carolina Energy Office to install 300 solar panels, and because of the work done earlier by Solar Design Associates, the university knows exactly where the panels will go and in what configuration. Davidson is now looking at installing solar photovoltaic modules on the roof of its sports complex.

When the regulatory and tax landscape at the federal level shifts in the coming years, the four schools are very nicely poised to update the information they have already gathered and move forward.

At the next summit, in September 2009, what steps did the group take?

We determined that there were 14 goals the group wanted to pursue. Not all of those could be addressed at one time, so four working groups emerged: Joint Purchasing, Renewable Energy, Energy Conservation Revolving Loan Fund, and Curricular/Co-Curricular Initiatives. What is really exciting about these working groups is that there are now lots of new faces and players involved from each school. About 150 people are involved so far.

Can you tell us more about the working groups? Let’s start with Purchasing.

This one is looking at what we learned from the energy audits and how we can share best management practices or best techniques with each other. The joint purchasing component of this is also keenly interesting. It involves an arrangement with vendors of green products to discount their pricing because we would be purchasing as a group. This is especially important for emerging technology that might be of interest.

And Renewable Energy?

This group continues to look at renewable energy possibilities on our campuses, such as solar, biomass and geothermal. Most recently, we have spent a lot of time looking at the use of biomass to generate electricity and steam.

What about the Revolving Loan Fund group?

Revolving loan funds provide capital to institutions to finance energy conservation initiatives. Through the resulting utilities savings, they pay back the loan and interest charges. As loans are paid back, new loans are issued.

And the Curricular/Co-Curricular group?

This group includes academic deans, faculty members and individuals who are responsible for service learning activities on the campuses. We are looking at how we can share best practices and share curricular experimentation. There is a lot of interest in developing a new academic major related to sustainability at Davidson and at Furman and in finding ways to infuse sustainability into the broad curriculum at all four schools.

Another initiative that has emerged from our ongoing conversations is that Duke University has initiated a carbon offsets program. They have interviewed all four schools to identify what their needs are related to offsets. Duke is now developing local energy conservation projects that other schools and organizations could invest in as a means of reducing their own carbon footprints.

What about The Duke Endowment’s role? Is there anything that other foundations might learn from this collaboration?

The Endowment got the right people together to talk about how to work best as a collaborative group and to develop the strategic plan. I’m not sure that other foundations would have been as willing to “go with the flow” and trust the changing nature of this endeavor. When we needed more guidance on regulatory aspects of sustainability, they provided that. When we needed more information on climate action planning, they helped us get the experts. We are now further exploring curricular and sustainability service opportunities and collaboration. We are continuing to identify ways to assist the schools and provide ways that our efforts could help other institutions and communities. The support and willingness of The Duke Endowment to sustain our dynamic efforts is unique.

Have all four schools signed the Presidents’ Climate Commitment?

Davidson, Duke, and Furman have signed the American Colleges and Universities Presidents’ Climate Commitment. Johnson C. Smith continues to consider joining the Commitment, and has actively engaged in all collaborative efforts related to the Commitment. All four schools are interested in coming up with ways to reduce our carbon footprints and achieve carbon neutrality. This has been a rallying point for us.

In January 2009, representatives from the four schools met at Furman to share best practices. We invited several panelists (from Middlebury College, Pomona College, Cornell University and University of New Hampshire) to make presentations, and we had a three-day workshop to look at the best ways to develop a comprehensive climate action plan. Over 90 participants were a part of the intensive workshop.

What has been the highlight for you?

The highlight for me is how much I have learned through this process. I’m amazed by the resilience of our task force in tackling challenges that are new and dynamic, and I’m proud of what the schools have been able to do. From what I understand, this is the first time in almost 90 years that the four Endowment-supported schools have collaborated on a major project. Observing this emerging community of colleagues has been rewarding, engaging, inspiring – and illuminating.

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Susan L. McConnell
Associate Director, Higher Education


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