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Green Power to the People

Students are considering the energy sources in their own dorms, libraries and classrooms and then working to harness university buying power to create a clean energy revolution.
 
 
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Last year, when Stephenie MacLagan was a freshman, she got involved with a campaign to make her college the first in the state of Maine to use 100% renewable energy.

MacLagan goes to Unity College, a very small, relatively young institution that prides itself on being “America’s Environmental University.” And according to the U.S. Department of Education, the nickname rings true. Unity College offers more environmental programs and graduates more students with environmental majors than any other college in the country. The President of the university even drives a hybrid car. So, when Stephanie and the student group she belonged to, the Constructive Activists, began their campaign, it wasn't hard to argue that switching to 100% renewable energy made sense to the university. None the less, even at such an environmentally-focused school, it was students who initiated the change.

Luckily, the students at Unity are not alone. They had help from several national groups, including the Climate Campaign, a network of students, groups, and non-profit organizations who are working together to obtain clean energy all over North America – from California to Canada. They are also evidence that the movement to get clean, renewable energy on campus is picking up speed.

Like the name implies, “renewable energy” refers to any form of energy that, unlike fossil fuels, will not run out. It includes a whole spectrum, from the cleanest, which are wind power, solar energy, and water power (water can be used as hydropower, wave power, tidal power and thermal power) to the less clean energy sources like Biomass and Municipal Waste, where wood or waste is burned to heat water that creates steam. Most providers of renewable energy use some combination of these, with the goal to reduce dependence on the so-called “greenhouse gases” and slow down global warming.

Over the last few years, there have been many victories on a diverse range of campuses. Universities are large institutions with enormous buying power. Students are considering the energy sources in their own dorms, libraries and classrooms and then working to harness this buying power to create a clean energy revolution.

For example, The University of California Board of Regents committed to 10% renewable energy (20% by 2017) and a policy which mandates that all new buildings be built according to green building standards. At the University of Southern Maine, students voted to switch their shuttle buses to biodiesel fuel. (link) And last year, Western Washington University in Bellingham, WA, became the first university to commit to 100% renewable electricity.

One of the most impressive victories has been on the Auroria campuses in Denver, CO. The Auroria campuses are a group of three commuter colleges serving a diverse population of 35,000 students. The campaign was spearheaded by a Metro State student, Joel Sayre, as part of an internship with the national student environmental organization Envirocitizen. He and some of his fellow students started an organization called Metro State Active Voices for the Environment (MSAVE). They knew they wanted their first campaign to be for clean energy, and they looked to nearby CU Boulder for inspiration: the year before, students at Boulder had won a student vote approving a fee increase which would go towards renewable energy.

MSAVE decided this would be the right strategy for the Auroria campuses as well, and immediately started collecting petition signatures to get a $1 fee increase question on a campus-wide ballot. They needed 5% of the students to sign their petition; they were well-organized and quickly had 10%. “It was surprisingly easy to get people to sign the petition,” says Sayre. “It just really made sense to people.” After getting approval from the Board of Directors, they had only 5 weeks before the question went to the student body.

MSAVE quickly kicked their campaign into high gear. They spent the five weeks employing both traditional student organizing techniques (going into classrooms to talk with students, reaching out to other student organizations, setting up tables in high-traffic areas, bake sales to raise money), as well as some more creative methods. They got a company to donate two large LCD screens, which they set up in the main daily entry points for Metro State students. They used pinwheels to create a mock wind farm in a prominent location on campus. On the two days of the vote, they hosted large concerts on campus.

The student body approved the fee increase by an overwhelming 95% (MSAVE only needed a majority of 51% to win). The vote means a quarter of a million dollars for renewable energy over the next three years. $54,0000 will go towards an educational solar-powered walkway through campus, and the rest will be used for wind power.

Sayre credits the victory with the fact that energy looms large in the public consciousness right now. “People are fighting and dying for these resources. That had to be in the back of people’s minds. And [high] gas prices have helped us.”

This clean energy movement is certainly not the first student movement to use institutional buying power to create social change. In the 1980's, students around the world helped hasten the end of apartheid by getting their universities to divest from companies that did business with South Africa. More recently, students on many campuses have worked to make sure their universities don‚t contract with apparel contractors that use sweatshop labor.

The clean energy movement uses many of the same tactics and owes much to these campaigns. However, there are several important ways that this campaign is unique:

It’s forward-thinking

Everyone loves things that are new and exciting, and renewable energy has the whiff of the future. It gets away from the classic activist “say no” and encourages people to envision a positive future.

In 1991, the Unity College Sustainability Committee was formed to oversee and coordinate the College’s various efforts at improving sustainability. The committee is a group of students, faculty and staff who meet throughout the year and work with various members of the surrounding community to reduce the College’s adverse impact on the environment. One of the recent projects taken on by the Sustainability committee was the renovation of one of its dorm style cottages, to incorporate energy-efficient design and sustainable landscaping. Students will be able to live in and be involved in the designing and maintaining the cottage.

Stephanie MacLagan thinks her schools commitment moves beyond the cost concerns of most Universities. “Our administration, when looking at this project, also saw the long term effects on interested incoming students.” She said. “Those who visit the campus see very first thing our eco-cottage with its wind turbine. What an impression!”

It’s economically sound

Oil prices are high and the money paid for oil leaves the community. At Metro State, one of the bidders for the new energy contract is the school’s technology department. “This is promoting jobs in Colorado communities, where we could use them,” points out Sayre.

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), students in the Student Environmental Action Coalition campaign (SEAC) were able to pass a referendum for a renewable energy fund for up to $200,000 a year for renewable energy projects on their campus.

One of the ways SEAC was able to win the at UNC referendum was educate students on the sources of their energy. And the health and environmental risk that are associated with the current sources. Liz Veazy, 22, a 2004 UNC graduate, and a founding member of the referendum campaign says that students saw that the health benefits out weight the economic benefits.

“Most students (and most citizens) have no clue where there energy comes from, which at UNC is two-thirds coal and one-third nuclear power. … And, when most students learned about the dirty energy that the university currently uses, many of them were happy to pay a small fee to support cleaner renewable energy on campus. ”

According to Veazy the projects goal is to demonstrate the viability of renewable energy technology in the most cost-effective manner possible. With further reductions in environmental impacts and the educational component incorporated in the project, the value will far exceed the costs.

Its appeal is wide-ranging

Because of the last two factors, a clean energy campaign provides an unusual opportunity for coalition-building. At Metro State, MSAVE had the support of groups as diverse as the College Republicans, the Black Student Alliance, the Muslim Student Union and several sororities.

At the UNC SEAC was able to work with the Carolina Environmental Student Alliance (CESA), Students United for a Responsible Global Environment (SURGE), Outing Club, Young Democrats and Socially Conscious Science Students and with members of their student government.

If you’re interested in getting clean energy on your campus, contact Envirocitizen

Sarah Rasmussen is an organizer and freelance writer who lives in St. Paul, MN. Chinyere Tutashinda contributed to the article.