Energy Efficiency: A way for colleges to save and make money?

The Obama administration – and every parent with a child in college – is concerned about the ever-escalating cost of higher education. And for good reason. Tuition, room and board rose 37 percent for undergraduates at public colleges and 25 percent at private colleges (adjusted for inflation) from 2000 to 2010, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.


Colleges are enormous energy users. National Grid says that in the Northeast, a US higher education hub, a typical 50,000-square foot college building uses more than $200,000 of energy annually. So one way for colleges to reduce costs is through greater energy efficiency, especially if it is financed adeptly.


The Green Revolving Fund offers an interesting model. Basically, the college sets aside money in a fund to make energy efficiency improvements, and then uses the money saved on energy bills to replenish the fund and make more improvements to further drive down energy bills.


About 50 colleges have established GRFs, and they are achieving a median annual return on investment of 30 percent, according to Mark Orlowski, executive director of Sustainable Endowments Institute, who presented a recent webinar on the funds through the Yale Center for Business and the Environment.


A GRF removes energy efficiency from competition for college resources. Energy improvements cease to be a burden on the operating budgets, and conversation about efficiency transforms into one about investment and re-investment. Colleges find seed money for GRFs from a variety of sources, including reserve funds, alumni donations, endowments and utilities.


The Sustainable Endowments Institute and several partners have launched a challenge to raise college GRF funds to a cumulative $1 billion, up from the current $65 million. Existing funds vary in size from $5,000 at the College of Wooster in Ohio to $25.45 million at Standard University. The average fund is $1.4 million, according to SEI.  The funds can be found in 25 states, and at colleges as big as University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with 42,000 students and as small as Kalamazoo College with an enrollment of 1,381. Students, themselves, started the programs at 17 of the schools.


A recent blog by Joe Indvik posted by the Association for Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education offers several good reasons for colleges to pursue GRFs over other ways to invest in efficiency. For example, he points to the “sizzle” factor.  “A GRF is a unified, purposeful investment vehicle that is easy to market and generates a more positive public image than traditional investments. It demonstrates concrete commitment to sustainability in a way that one-time investments cannot,” he says.


This is not a new concept. Harvard has had a GRF for  more than a decade. But the idea has taken off in recent years, with about three quarters of GRFs formed since 2008.  Energy efficiency companies would be wise to track their creation, since they clearly open the door to new business opportunities. More details can be found at and


Elisa Wood is a long-time energy writer. See more of her work at

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