The Cost of Sustainability

Sustainability is second only to diversity as the most used word in the campus lexicon. While its meaning is vague and its scope unclear, the underlying idea is that you care about the environment and that you are consuming no more energy than you need.

North Carolina State University has adopted sustainability in a big way, beginning with ”climate neutrality.”

In 2008, NC State’s previous chancellor, James Oblinger, signed on to the American College and University President’s Climate Commitment  (ACUPCC). The goal is to minimize greenhouse gas emissions to avoid contributing to global warming. NC State’s current chancellor, Randy Woodson, reaffirmed the commitment.

Also in 2008, NC State formed a Campus Environmental Sustainability Team (CEST) to create a “sustainability strategic plan,” which it completed in 2011. The team includes a wide range of people, including students, faculty, and administrators.

The plan is a 31-page document that “provides a comprehensive roadmap for advancing campus sustainability.” The SSP lists 35 different strategies that include “establishing a campus culture of sustainability,” “achieving 30% energy reduction,” “achieving 50% water reduction,” “diversifying fuel sources,” and “including sustainability into all building projects.” The timeframe to accomplish these goals, including climate neutrality, is 2050.

“The university’s mission to produce career-ready graduates requires preparing students who can address the complex social, environmental and economic challenges that the future holds,” says Tracy Dixon, director of the University Sustainability Office. “By building awareness and understanding of sustainability, students learn how to be responsible stewards of economic and natural resources,” Dixon told the Pope Center.

One of the biggest undertakings is NC State’s decision to make its new buildings LEED-certified. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a voluntary third-party verification for “green” buildings sponsored by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). LEED rates a building on a point scale, and, depending on how many points, the building can be certified at the silver, gold, and platinum level.

NC State aims for LEED silver certification for all new buildings with more than 20,000 gross square feet. As of now, four buildings have been certified, with another seven currently in the process. 

Right now, NC State does not have data on how much its LEED-certification efforts increase construction costs. The office is operating under the assumption that costs will be between 1-5 percent higher, but will pay off in the long run.

Michael Rizzo, assistant professor of economics at the University of Rochester, has examined some of the costs of LEED-certified school buildings. According to Rizzo, costs of a new dormitory building at the University of Rochester went up by 6 percent to obtain LEED certification.

Six percent may not seem like a whole lot, but let’s apply that to the construction of the new Talley Student Center, which is currently going through its LEED certification. According to its website, the Talley project is estimated to cost  $120 million. Six percent of that is around $7.2 million. The increased costs are certainly a factor contributing to Talley’s high $290 per student per year fee.

When you combine the costs of Talley with the ten other buildings and additions at NC State that have gone through or are currently going through LEED certification, it’s a sizeable chunk of change. That doesn’t include the costs of certification itself, which include registration fees and certification fees, or the cost of an appeal if the university decides that the building wasn’t graded properly. All of these projects trickle down into higher tuition and fees.

Are the benefits of LEED worth the increased costs?

According to the Building Council, LEED-certified buildings are designed to lower operating costs, reduce waste to landfills, increase asset value, reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions, and conserve energy and water. However, the few studies that have been conducted on LEED-certified buildings give only a hazy picture of their success rate. One recent study of energy use conducted by the Canadian National Research Council found that, on average, LEED buildings use 18-39% less energy per floor area. But the study found that 28-35 percent of LEED buildings used more energy than their non-LEED counterparts. The fact that around one-third of LEED buildings are using more energy than their standard counterparts should raise some eyebrows about LEED’s effectiveness.

 “My reading on this is that the ‘efficiency’ of LEED is at best understudied,” Rizzo told the Pope Center, “with proponents of LEED projects repeating largely unsubstantiated (and often conflicting) claims on how ‘green’ their project is likely to be.”

It turns out that LEED certification of future NC State buildings could be in jeopardy. The North Carolina House of Representatives passed a bill that would eliminate certification of state-owned buildings that “disadvantages” North Carolina timber. The bill doesn’t specifically mention LEED, but is written in a way that makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for LEED to operate.

LEED is just one way NC State is trying to achieve sustainability. NC State’s Housekeeping instituted in 2010 a “Green Cleaning” program. The program substitutes cleaning products with more environmentally friendly alternatives that, it claims, save money.

But those are just the start. CEST has released its proposed “Sustainability Policy,” and is seeking feedback on its proposals.

The policy goes beyond energy and environmental safety to cover all manner of other issues. For example, it directs that the university’s purchasing decisions “improve the social performance of its supply chain with consideration given to working conditions and historically underutilized businesses.” It calls for making roads more bicycle-friendly, reducing dependence on petroleum fuels, implementing regulations and programs to produce “zero” waste, and “behavior change” on campus. So far the proposal is still in its planning stages.

Evidence that these sustainability initiatives cost money is the fact that NC State recently adopted a $3 (per student, per year) sustainability fee over the objections of its Student Senate.

NC State’s sustainability efforts have also consumed three federal stimulus grants in 2011 totaling over $1.5 million. They were used to make lighting retrofits, provide hands-on job training for ten “energy fellows” in energy management, and fund an energy manager and analysts to identify energy conservation measures for the campus. These figures do not include the fees and obligations that allow NC State to be a part of ACUPCC or STARS (Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System), which is a website that tracks a college or university’s “sustainability performance.”

The university’s Energy Management Office says the lighting retrofits save around $275,000 in annual utility costs; however the John Locke Foundation has criticized such claims because they examine only one element of production, energy output, without factoring in other costs.

If these initiatives really do save the university money in the long run, then they should be pursued. If not, then students, parents, and taxpayers need to know what they are getting for their money. It’s time for a complete and thorough audit of the sustainability efforts at NC State and all of UNC’s public universities.