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Green is Green

Forbes is running an excellent article on the financial incentives for developing a sustainable campus:

Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., is leading the way toward a cleaner energy campus. "Coal is the cheapest source of energy, but it is also the most risky," says Tim Fahey, professor in the school's department of natural resources.

Fahey spoke in January at the celebration of Cornell's Combined Heat and Power Project (CHPP), a facility that primarily uses natural gas, which is cleaner than coal, and emits no mercury or sulfur dioxide. In addition to providing electricity, the plant captures the heat generated by the turbines to produce steam heat. Cornell is aiming to eliminate the use of coal by mid-2011.

Cornell had been burning more than 60,000 tons of coal a year. That's been reduced by 80% since the CHPP went online. The new plant is also a step forward in Cornell's Climate Action Plan, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from 319,000 metric tons to a net-zero level by 2050.

"The Sierra Club was kicking off their campaign, so we said, hey, we need to team up here and be an example," says Dan Roth, coordinator for sustainability at Cornell. The university has the good fortune of natural resources that give it energy options. For example, since 1999 its buildings have been cooled with water from the cold, nearly 500-foot-deep waters of Cayuga Lake.

While conservation and benevolence may be factors in going green, ultimately it's a good business decision. "By 2007, we had invested $10 million in energy conservation. Now we are saving $7 million a year," Roth says.

But a transition to cleaner fuel is not as simple as just declaring, "Let's go green." "There is a downside: We had to lay off coal handlers and hire people experienced in a high-tech natural gas facility. There are people and jobs and skill sets that don't change overnight," Roth says.

Fascinating to note that a $10MM investment will yield $70MM, or a 600 percent return over the next ten years. That's a lot of student aid money. You can contrast this with the estimated $330 MM value of Cornell's Marcellus Shale deposits.

The moral of the story, of course, is that a little bit invested now can yield large returns down the road, and hopefully the folks in Day Hall appreciate this phenomenon in other areas of the University's budget, including campus life, alumni affairs, and recruitment and retention of faculty.

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on April 20, 2010 (#)

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