Policy Change is Key to Meeting UNC Clean Energy Goals

Source: Caroline Culler

Source: Caroline Culler

Take thousands of people, put them on a college campus – and watch the energy and water usage spike. That's what happens in the fall at universities across the country when students flood back to classrooms and dorms.

The nation's oldest public university system is keeping a keen eye on utility meters. The University of North Carolina (UNC) is on its way to reducing energy and water use by 30 percent by 2015.

Also noteworthy is UNC's goal for 2050, when the university's 17 campuses aim to be carbon neutral.

Slowing down UNC's progress are North Carolina statutory restrictions that make it difficult for campuses to finance and use their own renewable energy.

UNC President Thomas W. Ross put it this way: "The ability to generate part of our own energy through solar and other alternative methods would present the greatest opportunity to lower future energy costs and lessen our impact on the environment.”

Duke Energy recently announced a long-term contract to sell solar power it generates in North Carolina to campuses in Washington, DC. The deal will help American University, George Washington University, and George Washington University Hospital meet their renewable energy and carbon neutrality goals. UNC doesn't have the same opportunity in North Carolina, and it should.

North Carolina's academic and environmental communities continue to explore policy changes to provide sustainable options for universities. Two examples stand out. In 2007, lawmakers passed legislation to promote energy and water conservation on UNC campuses. Three years later, legislators enacted a law allowing UNC campuses to retain a portion of the money they save when they reduce energy use.

How to shift away from inefficient practices to stronger policies and regulations like these was a topic at the annual Appalachian Energy Summit, attended by energy leaders from every UNC campus and six private universities in North Carolina.

Speakers emphasized that engaging students in planning a cleaner future is critical to success. Campuses that encourage a clean energy future give students the opportunity to learn about efficiency and sustainability across disciplines. Plus, campuses are able to use energy savings to pay for energy upgrades and other fiscal needs.

UNC has made the commitment to a clean energy future. Now, the state of North Carolina should continue to update policies to make the university system as widely recognized for energy innovation as it is for academic excellence.

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