Board approves $3.5 million for sustainability projects


Roughly 1 percent of Occidental’s endowment—$3.5 million—will go towards funding campus sustainability projects, thanks to a measure approved by the board of trustees in October. Occidental’s Sustainability Committee created the newly-funded Green Revolving Fund (GRF) in order to make campus greening initiatives more economically feasible for the college, according to Sustainability Coordinator Emma Sorrell.

The GRF will provide loans for projects with at least 8 percent return on investment (ROI) or a pay-off period of 12 years or less. The savings generated from the projects will flow back into the fund, according to economics professor and GRF co-founder Bevin Ashenmiller.

“One of the major issues around environmental efficiency savings has to do with budgets,” Ashenmiller said. “Often, a firm’s facilities budget is separate from the administration budget.”

Sorrell said that funding for a green project is typically the responsibility of the Sustainability Fund or the department that proposes it. This separation of budgets hinders the administration’s willingness to commit to large investments in green projects, according to Ashenmiller, since savings will only benefit one department.

The Sustainability Committee solved this problem in 2013 by creating the GRF and inviting administrators, trustees, Facilities staff, faculty and students to manage it. The committee plans to offer two spots for student representatives.

Sorrell and Ashenmiller, along with Assistant Director of Energy Services Michelle Hill and physics professor Daniel Snowden-Ifft, spearheaded the effort to get the GRF approved by the board of trustees by September and operating by October.

Garnering the board’s support for the GRF was a difficult task. According to Snowden-Ifft, it took more than a year to prove the economic practicality of the fund to the board.

“What helped a lot was hiring [Associate Director of Utilities Melvin Johnson] and [Hill],” Snowden-Ifft said. “I think that gave the board a measure of confidence that we could carry out the saving calculations and that it would be integrated with the activities of Facilities.”

Despite reservations from the board, GRF members believe that their projects will have large ROIs. A 2012 survey by the Sustainable Endowments Institute reported that ROIs for the GRFs of 36 U.S. colleges and universities averaged 28 percent in 2011-2012. Both Ashenmiller and Snowden-Ifft are confident that Occidental will earn similar returns.

Because the GRF is, theoretically, a self-sustaining pool of money, departments no longer need to take money from their own funds for a GRF-approved project.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to do something that will free up money for us to spend on academic programs, while also decreasing our carbon footprint,” Ashenmiller said.

Snowden-Ifft believes Occidental’s one-megawatt solar array on Fiji Hill, which was built in 2012, jumpstarted the college’s green-investment movement and proves that GRF projects can yield significant returns. But, according to Ashenmiller, many up-and-coming GRF projects will not be as flashy as the solar arrays.

“One of the things about a revolving fund is that it allows you to do projects that aren’t sexy,” Ashenmiller said. “The projects that are going to make us a more sustainable campus are not all going to be high-profile projects.”

According to Ashenmiller, possible projects include retrofitting some of the science buildings, installing higher-efficiency LED lighting, insulating water and steam pipes, replacing old boilers and repairing electrical, heating and cooling systems. The GRF is still in its initial stage of development, so members have not yet decided which projects to take on first. After the quick, high-return projects are completed, Snowden-Ifft wants to implement more solar energy projects.

Overall, GRF members hope that their efforts serve as a lesson to students, and to the broader community, that environmental sustainability can be economical.

“We can have our cake and eat it too,” Snowden-Ifft said.