The Sustainable Campus (Trends and Innovations)

A Revolving Energy Fund

Students walking around the University of Montana (UM) campus in Missoula no longer have to worry about dodging water blasted from lawn sprinklers on their way to class. That’s because a 2017 campus sustainability project changed the campus sprinkler systems to operate automatically at night and conserve more water.

The project, proposed by the Associated Students of the University of Montana (ASUM) Senator Kaden Harrison, is one of three that was approved last spring by the Kless Revolving Energy Fund (KRELF) Committee—a sustainability group that oversees student-led energy efficiency projects on campus.

While most UM students are aware of the optional $6 sustainability fee that appears on their semester registration bill, few realize it goes directly to the Kless Fund. Since its inception in 2009, the fund has supported a wide variety of small-scale energy-saving projects. The committee now deposits roughly 70 percent of all incoming funds into a “large-project reserve fund,” which can only be used for a campus sustainability project once it reaches $500,000—it currently sits at about $253,000.

How It Started

During the 2008-2009 academic year, former student and UM sustainability advocate, Sonny Kless, initiated one of the first university funds in the nation to support student-designed campus energy saving projects. In 2011, the fund was renamed in honor of Kless, who died in a plane crash in 2010.

KRELF provides loans or grants for projects that demonstrate quantifiable energy savings for university auxiliary buildings, such as the University Center, Fitness and Recreation Center, Curry Health Center, and residence halls. The fund is run by the KRELF Committee, which includes the ASUM sustainability coordinator, one facilities services representative, one faculty member from environmental studies, one faculty member from Missoula College, and five students—two must be ASUM senators.

How It’s Working

In 2014, Environmental Studies Professor Robin Saha and a graduate student were awarded a KRELF grant of about $1,200 for their KRELF project, which assessed the total greenhouse gas emissions reductions and cost savings of previous KRELF projects. Saha said he was more or less pleased by the assessment findings. While most KRELF projects demonstrate cost savings to the university, Saha said there was one finding that may surprise people.

“We discovered the solar projects don’t have a good return on investment,” Saha said. The committee found the financial cost of bringing solar projects to campus is higher than the energy cost savings generated within the first five or so years.

Projects with more immediate energy savings include energy-efficient lighting systems that replace old fixtures with LED lighting, which use less energy and require less overall maintenance.

UM business student and 2016 KRELF project recipient, Graydon Myhre, first heard about the sustainability fund through his involvement in residence life. Working with a local company, Myhre designed specialized metal racks to place outside university buildings that would hold longboards, skateboards, and scooters. The goal was to support and promote those sustainable forms of transportation.

Plans for the Future

As of spring 2017, the fund held nearly $90,000. The three projects in spring 2017 were awarded a total of $50,000. The rest of the fund went into the large-project reserve fund—a separate fund that wasn’t part of the original plan.

Meredith Repke is the ASUM sustainability coordinator, which is a position directly funded by KRELF. “That [large-project reserve fund] evolved maybe three years ago when we realized that we wanted the fund to help us with larger energy-efficiency projects,” said Repke.

As chair of the KRELF committee, Repke’s top priority is to shepherd students through the proposal process and follow up on those who have received funding.

Eva Rocke, campus sustainability coordinator, has watched the fund evolve over time. Rocke hopes to see the large-project KRELF fund used for larger campus investments in renewable energy.

Other universities have entered agreements to invest in large-scale renewable projects, but Rocke said UM cannot because of its relationship with state utility Northwestern Energy.

“When it comes to climate action, we’re not going to achieve our climate action goals if we’re not able to invest in renewables,” Rocke said. Rocke sees the large-project fund as a way to work proactively UM’s commitment on climate action. “It’s one of the most important tools that we have at our disposal.”

—This article was originally published in the Montana Kaiman, an independent weekly news-magazine of the University of Montana in Missoula, and is used with permission.

This article originally appeared in the College Planning & Management January 2018 issue of Spaces4Learning.

About the Author

Jacqueline Sussman is a Montana-based freelance writer with experience in environmental topics.