The year 2015 will mark a milestone for sustainability at Illinois. This fall, a 5.87-megawatt, 20.8-acre solar farm – now under construction on university farmland – will supply about two percent of the campus’s total electricity needs. This project is the result of a dream and a lot of hard work by many stakeholders – not least among them the Illinois students.
Efforts to build a greener Urbana-Champaign campus began in earnest in 2003, when students voted to pay a nonrefundable $2 fee each semester to promote renewable energy on campus. They later added a “sustainable campus environment fee,” which is now $12.06 – one of the largest on-campus sustainability funding pools in the United States.
The Student Sustainability Committee oversees how the campus spends this money. Twelve voting student members, four non-voting staff members and six non-voting faculty members make up the SSC. The Illinois Student Senate appoints the student members. The SSC allocates about $1.1 million each year to various campus projects. It has contributed $1.05 million to the Solar Farm, which is estimated to cost $15.5 million over 20 years and produce energy for 20 to 40 years.
“Students are really driving our sustainability efforts,” said Morgan Johnston, associate director of sustainability at Facilities and Services, the administrative office that oversees the construction and maintenance of all campus buildings, grounds and infrastructure. “The Student Sustainability Committee definitely helped get these projects approved by the campus administration.”
Student sustainability funds have supported the purchase and installation of rooftop solar panels, high-efficiency lighting and geothermal heating and cooling at various campus locales, said Micah Kenfield, program advisor to the SSC. The funds have helped build new bike racks and paths, bring recycling to the Quad and convert vast, high-maintenance lawns to perennial landscapes that require less water, fertilizer and mowing.
Sustainability funds helped establish a 6-acre, student-run farm that provides fresh produce to campus residence halls and to a farmers’ market on the Quad, Kenfield said.
“The students have helped pay for the farm educator position and provided some significant support for the farm’s infrastructure,” he said.
The SSC promotes innovative new projects that might never get off the ground without a little startup help, said Amy Liu, 21, a junior in urban and regional planning from Chicago who chairs the SSC.
“We’re often the primary funder on a lot of projects, but we like to see funding leveraged from other entities, other groups on campus, because not only does that take some of the burden off of us, but you have more people holding a project accountable from beginning to end,” she said. Startup funds are common, but projects are expected to stand on their own within two or three years, she said.
The SSC looks for an educational component in every funding proposal it receives. Engineering students may learn how to size solar panels for particular applications, for example. Workers at the student farm learn about agriculture and supply chain management. And the campus bicycle center trains students how to adjust and maintain their own bikes.
“This is a student fund and the money is going back toward education,” Kenfield said. “Students at other institutions pay these fees but don’t get the same educational component or leadership opportunities we do. Ours is the leader in really putting the student in the student sustainability committee, and involving them through the whole cycle.”
The committee is currently reviewing proposals for the spring 2015 funding cycle. Funding categories are education, energy, food and waste, land, transportation and water.