University of Vermont

University Communications

Students Fuel Clean Energy at UVM

These solar panels supply 20 percent of the electric power needs of the George D. Aiken Center by generating 95,880 kilowatt-hours per year while preventing 35 metric tons of carbon emission. (Photo: Sally McCay)

American college students often push their schools to live up to their ideals; not so often do they directly supply the means to reach those goals. Not the case with clean energy at UVM. In 2005, a group of students began to urge the university to explore cleaner forms of energy, which led to a survey that showed 68 percent of students willing to add a $10 per semester fee for that purpose. Following Student Government Association and UVM Board of Trustees approval, the Clean Energy Fund was born in 2008.

“Students were saying, ‘We want a campus where we can see sustainability and evolution towards a more sustainable way of living in action, around us, and we’re not seeing it,’” says Gioia Thompson, director of the Office of Sustainability. “They spent two years pushing for this because they wanted more action on the renewable energy front. The real value of the Clean Energy Fund, beyond even the projects themselves, is the experience gained by students, faculty and staff going through the process and consensus building it takes to bring these ideas to fruition.”

Since 2008, a number of energy saving projects have been aproved including a grid-tied photovoltaic system on the roof of the Ellen A. Hardacre Equine Center in the Miller Research Center that generates power for the horse barn’s electrical needs, computers, appliances and other equipment. Other projects include the green labs program to help reduce energy consumption in laboratory buildings; a campus dashboard system that outfits four buildings and five renewable energy installations with hardware and software that produce online displays of the energy used and the renewable energy generated. The “Energy Auditor and Renewable Energy Retrofit Training” course produces an annual cohort of students trained to analyze campus heating, transportation, and electrical use and make renewable energy recommendations. An engineering and material sciences course teaches students to fabricate organic solar cells.

Perhaps the most visible installation to date is a field of seventeen photovoltaic panels installed in December 2010 at the U.S. Forest Service on Spear Street. The solar panels supply 20 percent of the electric power needs of the George D. Aiken Center by generating 95,880 kilowatt-hours per year while preventing 35 metric tons of carbon emission. The Aiken solar trackers were among the first projects presented to the Clean Energy Fund’s 11-member committee of students, faculty, staff and alumni when it called for proposals from the campus community in September of 2009.

Avoiding eco-clutter

Mieko Ozeki, sustainable projects coordinator in the Office of Sustainability and national expert on green funds, says poor planning and a lack of follow through can result in campus “eco-clutter” such as abandoned solar trackers and unfinished student gardens. UVM is taking steps to avoid that pitfall. “There’s a lot of information out there about how to create green funds, but not much about how to implement and manage them for the long term,” says Ozeki, who recently completed a capstone project on best practices for implementing and managing campus student green funds as part of her master’s degree at Harvard University Extension. “We’re trying to design and implement a successful green fund that strategically fits with the university.”

Results from the forthcoming “Comprehensive Campus Renewable Energy Feasibility Study,” a CEF approved project designed to assess UVM’s renewable energy needs, are expected to help guide future resource allocation decisions by the CEF Committee and key campus stakeholders including Campus Planning; the Physical Plant; Facilities, Design & Construction and senior administration. The study should also help the university determine how to meet its goal of complete carbon neutrality by 2025 as stated in its Climate Action Plan.

“Students are learning more about the fund all the time and have been impressed with the solar trackers and the course offerings,” says CEF committee chair Alex McConaghy, a senior business major who is working on a "green IT" proposal with business school lecturer Thomas Chittenden G’04 that would reduce energy loads from desktop computers. “I’ve learned a lot about the importance of working with people from different backgrounds to select projects that help the environment and make sense from a business perspective.”

While students have stepped up to get the CEF off the ground, alumnus David Arms ’88, alumni rep to the Clean Energy Fund and owner of a dairy brokerage firm in Shelburne, says he sees an opportunity for alumni to help maintain its success. Arms has offered matching funds for the first $5,000 donated by alumni to the fund and encourages the input of ideas, as well. “The committee really endeavors to use the funds judiciously and make it work for students and the university,” Arms says, noting that UVM can be a model for individuals and businesses in the state through the CEF initiatives.