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Building Green on University Campuses

October 13th, 2009

Originally published by The Triple Helix.

Allison Shapiro, Samantha Bowen, Margaret Farland, Amelia Wesselink, Erin Doherty, Georgetown University

Opinions expressed in the Op-Ed articles are solely those of the author and do not represent those of the Triple Helix. However, submission of varying and divergent opinions on controversial and current issues is encouraged.

For the United States, accelerated climate change is not only an environmental concern, but also a matter of national security. As a net importer of energy [1], the U.S. is heavily dependent upon the stability of energy supply from other countries for maintaining the high standard of living that Americans enjoy. Recent events on the global arena have demonstrated, however, that this supply is not only vulnerable to periods of instability, but also unsustainable. Furthermore, scientists around the world have stated with increasing consensus that human activities are largely to blame for the global warming that has given rise to climate change, most notably the production and consumption of fossil fuels, which releases large quantities of heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere [2]. For these reasons, measures to promote energy independence, conservation, and efficiency must be implemented immediately to reduce the threats to our national security, the environment, and human life that are posed by climate change and energy dependence.

In this country, buildings contribute more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than either the transportation or industry sectors [3], and universities – as conglomerations of buildings – are large contributors to the problem. Yet, while the 110th Congress has made both climate change and energy independence top priorities, federal legislation has not focused on buildings as major energy consumers and indirect emitters of carbon dioxide. Greening university buildings will not only reduce the United States’ contribution to global warming, but showcase new energy-efficient technologies and designs to students and local communities, promoting their widespread adoption throughout society.

Global warming refers to an increase in average global temperatures believed to be due to increasing concentrations of atmospheric gases, known as greenhouse gases, which are particularly effective at trapping in heat. When the Sun’s rays reach the Earth, a portion of the solar radiation is absorbed by the biosphere, while the rest is reflected back into space. Some of this reflected radiation successfully exits the atmosphere, but a portion of it is absorbed by the greenhouse gases, heating the lower layers of the atmosphere. While some of this heat retention is beneficial for life on the planet (most species would be unable to survive without a good amount of warming), an excessive amount of warming is not. This is the crux of the problem that the world faces today with regard to greenhouse gases; elevated levels of the gases are projected to give rise to accelerated atmospheric warming, whose downstream effects include everything from melting glaciers and rising sea levels to an increased incidence of extreme weather events.

In 2003, buildings in the United States accounted for 37% of the nation’s energy use, 68% of its electricity consumption, 40% of its raw materials, and 36% of its carbon dioxide emissions [4]. The implementation of energy-efficient technologies and design in buildings, i.e. “building green,” can significantly reduce these numbers, while reducing maintenance and operating costs at the same time. These technologies range from easily installed innovations such as Energy Star™ appliances and compact fluorescent light bulbs to more complicated design features such as solar paneled-roofs, on-site water treatment facilities, and the strict utilization of recycled products in building construction. These features may either be installed during the original construction of a building or implemented during renovations by “retrofitting” new technologies into older systems. In addition to their energy-saving and efficiency benefits, green buildings also reduce the production of material waste and contribute to increased worker productivity through the use of natural light and improved air quality, such as through air cycling with outdoor air [5]. Furthermore, it has been demonstrated that the extra financial investment of building green can be recouped within three to five years, if there is even an additional initial building cost [4]. If widely implemented, green building technologies will significantly alter our nation’s energy needs and decrease the strain we impose on the environment.

As concerned environmentalists, we recognize the need for green buildings and believe that their benefits are too great to ignore. As students, we recognize the profound effect that placing green buildings in an educational context can have for their widespread adoption throughout society. Institutions of higher education are uniquely poised to showcase the benefits of green building design and technologies to student communities and visitors alike. As hubs of progressive thought, universities are regarded by the rest of the nation as models for responsible and forward-thinking behavior. Additionally, student involvement in green building programs will raise awareness of the need to adopt more energy-conscious lifestyles and inspire the next generation of American engineers, scientists, and other environmentally-minded professionals. For these reasons, we felt that university campuses would be excellent venues for a federal green building program.

With the goal of establishing a federal program to promote green buildings and a set of reasons why universities should be the foci of such a program, we went to Congress in late February 2007. The offices we visited initially were chosen based on the policy records of the Congressmen, both of whom had introduced legislation aimed at environmental protection in the recent past and represent very environmentally-oriented constituencies. Representative Jay Inslee (D-WA, 1st District) has been a public proponent of environmental protection for years, with a particular interest in energy independence and climate change abatement. Freshman Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) had put forth numerous pieces of environmental legislation during his career as a House Representative, and as a new member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, he seemed potentially receptive to our proposal.

Staff in both Senator Sanders’ office and Representative Inslee’s office expressed interest in working with us to develop such a federal program, but Senator Sanders’ office was the first to draft language for it. Within three weeks of our first visit to Senator Sanders’ office, his Senior Policy Advisor for Education had sent us the text of an amendment calling for the creation of a federal grant program to promote energy sustainability in institutions of higher education. The amendment was intended to go into the Higher Education Act (HEA), which the Health, Education, Labor, and Pension (HELP) Committee was due to submit to the floor for reauthorization later in the spring, but would be funded by the Department of Energy. We then met with relevant staffers in the offices of both Senator Kennedy (D-MA), chairman of the HELP Committee, and Senator Domenici (R-NM), ranking member of the Energy & Natural Resources Committee, to ask their support for the amendment.

As we worked with legislative staffers on Capitol Hill and over email, we also initiated conversations with local and national grassroots and non-profit organizations whose membership support or advice we identified as being helpful for either our lobbying efforts or the creation of an effective federal green building program. We identified the Georgetown University chapter of the Campus Climate Challenge as a primary group of constituents to mobilize. We also contacted the United States Green Building Council, which guided us to the most relevant informational materials to present to Congressional offices. Additionally, we contacted the Association for Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), an organization of hundreds of university presidents and campus sustainability coordinators, and the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN) – a local global warming advocacy group with a large grassroots membership – both of which agreed to mobilize their members to contact their Senators in support of the amendment if the need arose.

On April 16th, the proposed amendment was inserted the Energy Efficiency Promotion Act of 2007 (S.1115). This Act received strong support within the Energy & Natural Resources Committee, bipartisan support within the Senate, and broad committee support in terms of the committees on which its cosponsors sit. In inserting the amendment into S.1115, slight modifications were made to the proposed grant program, including the removal of an appropriations cap and the stipulation that at least half of the grant money be awarded to schools with small endowments. The amendment was later included in the Clean Energy Act of 2007, which passed the Senate on June 21st.

The Senate has taken a critical step to assist universities in building green. Now, the provision must be reconciled with a House version of the Clean Energy Act of 2007 later this year. University students can continue to play a critical role in moving this legislation forward by meeting with their Representatives and participating in their campus advocacy organizations to urge passage of the provision.


1. U.S. Energy Information Administration, Country Analysis Briefs: United States, Background (EIA Online Publication, November 2005; http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/cabs/Usa/Background.html).

2. UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2007: Mitigation (Contribution of Working Groups III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC [B.Metz, O.R. Davidson, P. R. Bosch, R. Dave, L.A. Meyer (eds.)], 2007; http://www.ipcc.ch/SPM040507.pdf).

3. U.S. Energy Information Administration, as referenced by C. Hawthorne, “Turning Down the Global Thermostat,” Metropolis Magazine, October 2003, http://www.metropolismag.com/html/content_1003/glo/index.html).

4. U.S. Green Building Council, “Building Momentum: National Trends and Prospects for High-Performance Green Buildings” (USGBC, Washington, DC: 2003).

5. J. Romm, Rocky Mountain Institute, “Greening the Building and the Bottom Line: Increasing Productivity through Energy Efficient Design” (Snowmass, CO: 1994; http://www.rmi.org/images/PDFs/BuildingsLand/D94-27_GBBL.pdf).

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