University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Student Preparedness

The newly created Sustainability, Energy and Environment Fellows Program (SEE-FP) is an undergraduate minor giving students the tools to both mitigate and adapt to a changing climate. A highly collaborative program with six academic units contributing teaching faculty, SEE-FP enrolled more than 30 students in its first year and expects many more. Other academic opportunities include the Grand Challenge Learning courses: sets of courses, or “pathways”, each designed to tackle a real-world issue. The “Sustainability” pathway begins with an experience-based course in which students survey local green infrastructure and develop a sustainability assessment of their hometowns. For immediate hands-on impact, we also offer Learning in Community (LINC) courses, project-based classes that often take on sustainability challenges both locally and globally. In Spring 2016, for instance, one class designed a sustainable wastewater system for the University-owned Allerton Park, often used for academic retreats and public events, while another team planned the implementation of erosion-reducing infrastructure in Kapeeka, Uganda. Students can finance their own projects on campus through the Student Sustainability Committee (SSC), which allocates $1.1 million annually in student fees. SSC itself is led by students, who get an inside look at how green projects are financed. SSC places the greatest priority on projects with high student engagement: for instance, our Sustainable Student Farm uses hundreds of volunteers to harvest and process local foods, plant and monitor experimental agroforestry plots, and provide food to campus dining halls and the student body. 10-20 student-led projects are financed every year through SSC.

Climate Innovation

The University creates financial and social incentives for climate innovation. They manage a Revolving Loan Fund (RLF), a pool of $3.9 million that provides low-interest loans for energy efficiency projects in campus buildings. It can fund projects with payback periods of up to a decade, and many buildings found it feasible to install LED lighting and occupancy sensors thanks to the RLF.

As a leader in agricultural sciences, the University pioneers research in climate-adaptable agriculture. The Plants in silico project, one of seven projects seed-funded by the Institute for Sustainability, Energy and Environment (iSEE), aims to create complete computational models of crop plants from the molecular to the ecological level, and will use these to understand and prepare for the plants’ response to climate change. Another project measures the yields, benefits, and carbon sequestration potential of agroforestry plots, compared to the corn-soybean rotation which is currently conventional in Illinois.

Events sponsored and organized by iSEE foster conversation by and between leaders in climate innovation. The Institute hosts a major congress each year on a grand-challenge world topic; sponsors or co-sponsors several major lectures on climate policy and preparedness every year; and hosts semi annual symposia to discuss progress on the Climate Action Plan. It also works with the Champaign County Sustainability Network (CCNet) to host discussions on local efforts for climate mitigation, such as urban stormwater management and wind energy implementation.

Creating Opportunity 

The University is making good on its commitments to a future of clean energy. In 2015, a 5.87-megawatt solar farm went online, which is expected to account for 2 percent of demand delivered directly to the campus grid. Then, in early 2016, the University Senate resolved to exclude 15 major coal utility companies from their investment portfolio.

In addition to the Revolving Loan Fund and Student Sustainability Committee funds, financial opportunities for energy conservation come through the Energy Conservation Incentive Program (ECIP). This is an annual award to the eight campus buildings that have shown the greatest improvement in energy efficiency. In FY 2015, the top-performing building decreased its energy usage by 40% over the course of the year and received more than $60,000. The University also regularly performs total energy retrofits to aging campus buildings; 60 retrofits so far have resulted in a 27% decrease in total campus energy usage.

iSEE’s new Certified Green Office Program encourages offices and units to purchase supplies with Energy Star or other relevant ratings, which in turn encourages vendors to supply them with greener products. For instance, offices can now purchase paper with 30% recycled content for cheaper than virgin paper. The University also demonstrated support for sustainable waste management by switching from a landfill with no technology to capture emissions to one that captures methane emissions for electricity production. These purchasing policies lend the University community’s voice to sustainable investment.