It's the time of year when college students return to campuses across the United States. As the 2009-2010 year dawns upon them, many students will find their schools taking action to reduce their environmental impact. In fact, the trend of colleges and universities going green is growing at an incredible pace. In the second annual Princeton Review's Green College ratings, there was a 30 percent increase in participating schools.

Last week, President Bill Clinton was in Chicago speaking to the American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment, a group of 250 university presidents and senior leadership looking to reduce the environmental impacts on their campuses and prepare students for green jobs. Clinton urged the group to speed up their efforts. "All this work is out there laying on the ground, begging to be done with absolutely certain rate of return," Clinton told the university executives.

Many schools are pushing forward at a fast pace. Students returning to Arizona State University will find a major project under way to retrofit interior and exterior lighting. The six-month project will improve the lighting quality across the campus to reduce energy demand. This is not a small project either: The school is retrofitting 10,214 lighting fixtures on the 300-acre campus. The effort is expected to save more than 1 GigaWatt-hour (1 million kilowatt-hours), resulting in savings of over $100,000 annually.

According to ASU President Michael Crow, greening the campus "…makes universities' business decisions logically consistent with climate research at the same institutions." After all, he rightly points out, "You work at a university that says the sky is falling, and you've done nothing?"

At Colorado College, another school making the Green Honor Roll from Princeton Review's rankings, the school's new buildings have achieved LEED certification, with the Russell T. Tutt Science Center housing a shower for bicycle commuters, using wind-generated electricity and using low-VOC paints and other more environmentally friendly products. The campus also boasts biodiesel buses and hybrid and electric vehicles among its fleet.

Of course, there is no lack of colleges working on green technologies of their own. It is hard to walk around the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus without seeing a slew of students on mopeds zooming by. One of my favorite projects I have heard about recently is a class at the university that immerses engineering students into various engineering disciplines. A recent class took on a project to improve the environmental performance of a Vespa moped, a vehicle that already gets 90 miles per gallon. The goal was to improve the fuel efficiency of the vehicle by 10 percent using a system based on electrolysis, or splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen using an electric charge. What's most impressive is that the class is comprised of freshman students, most being exposed to real-life engineering problems for the first time.

Millions of students will be returning to campus in the coming weeks and while I've mentioned a few recent efforts, you will be hard-pressed to find many colleges that aren't taking at least some action. Not only is it good business sense for these schools to take action; more and more students will be evaluating their college options on the basis of their environmental performance and their sustainability programs (almost a quarter of respondents to the "College Hopes and Worries Survey" said that having information about a college's commitment to the environment would "very much" impact their decision about applying or attending that school). While I applaud the efforts of many of these schools that have begun initial efforts, only 15 schools out of 700 make the highest ranking on the Princeton list showing that more must be done and more must be communicated to their communities to keep the momentum going.

Joshua Saunders is the Global Service line manager for UL Environment Inc. (ULEI), a wholly owned subsidiary of Underwriters Laboratories Inc. As part of his role, Joshua is the program owner overseeing environmental verification and certification services.

Tutt Science Center -- Image courtesy of Colorado College.