Time’s up: Higher ed’s climate action mandate is now

Colleges and universities are facing the opportunity of a lifetime. A confluence of factors and market trends are creating more motivation, access, and funding opportunities for carbon neutrality across higher education campuses.

For years, sustainability and climate action have been rising up the agenda for school administrators. In a 2021 Princeton Review survey of prospective students, 75% of respondents (vs. 66% in 2020) said that a college’s commitment to the environment would affect their application decision – and the trend is only growing. The Biden Administration’s push for climate action and the growing environmental consciousness of incoming classes of prospective students combine such that today, a meaningful commitment to sustainability is not just a moral imperative. It is becoming a license to operate for public colleges nationwide.

Based on survey responses from 127 financial and operational administrators representing public colleges and universities, Schneider Electric uncovered the most significant obstacles to sustainable innovation, and the strategies for overcoming them.

Meeting the moment with climate action

In our research, we find many public institutions are already planning to address one of the biggest carbon offenders in higher education: aging infrastructure. A vast majority (89%) of respondents said that their campus is advancing construction and or renovation projects now or within the next three years, with more than half of those projects aimed at addressing deferred maintenance from fixing broken windows to replacing old equipment.

However, it’s important not to let this backlog and the never-ending list of competing priorities overshadow opportunities for innovation that not only increase their campus sustainability and efficiency, but also give them an advantage in an increasingly competitive landscape.

Impactful technology is within reach

Opportunities to reduce your campus’s carbon footprint are much more accessible than they once were. The cost of renewables, for example, has fallen dramatically in the last decade, with solar PV power costs seeing an 82% drop between 2010 and 2019. And reliability is going up too: during the pandemic, when energy volatility and supply chain disruption were at a record high, renewable generation outpaced coal.

Lowering carbon footprint across campus operations often begins with reducing energy demand, and revisiting planned projects through a sustainability lens can reveal opportunities for material climate impact. For example, instead of replacing outdated furnaces with traditional gas-burning equivalents, use the investment as an opportunity to transition to electric heating.

Greening energy supply often represents the greatest opportunity for sustainability improvements, given that electricity production accounts for a quarter of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and co-generation offers a way to do just that. Compared with traditional power plants, a combined heat and power (CHP) plant makes productive use out of otherwise wasted heat for heating and cooling processes. A microgrid, which brings together technologies such as solar, software-enabled and data-driven equipment, and battery storage, can be implemented using a pragmatic ‘building blocks’ approach, allowing schools to incrementally build electrical resilience and reduce carbon footprint.

Bridging the ambition gap

The upcoming infrastructure stimulus is expected to bring much needed financial recourse to support these projects, but funding is not the only barrier to scaling up modernization faster. According to our survey, 73% of respondents to our survey cited workforce turnover and wages as a concern, an increase from 65% from our survey last year, pointing to a widening operational gap.

With a desire to focus more on their mission of education and research, financial and operational administrators are taking notice of financial enablement models that transform sustainability initiatives from a competing priority into a business lever for growth. From energy performance contracting (ESPC) to public-private partnerships (Energy P3) or energy-as-a-service (EaaS), public universities can tap into various business models to meet their dual goals of cost and carbon reduction.

An energy P3 is the newest financial enablement model available, and while still considered an emerging model, its adoption skyrocketed this year. In fact, 56% of respondents to our 2021 survey plan to leverage private operators to manage and maintain their energy infrastructure – a significant increase from the 12% whom expressed interest in 2020. Through an Energy P3, institutions can reduce operational risk by leaning on private operators with technical expertise and dedicated resources to support ongoing operations and maintenance of installed systems. Meanwhile, your school’s staff is freed up for their core mission of education and research.

To explore key findings from our market research and strategies for large-scale campus innovation, download our latest white paper.

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