Chevy helps school an Oregon campus on carbon credits

Just as industry can learn much from academia, so, too, can academia benefit from industry's leadership.

A new program initiated by Chevrolet demonstrates this in action. U.S. colleges can use the voluntary carbon market to turn their energy efficiency gains into carbon credits that they can sell to companies. They can reinvest the revenue they receive in even deeper carbon reductions to help them meet campus-wide commitments.

I talked with General Motors' sustainability director, David Tulauskas, who manages the Chevy carbon-reduction initiative, and with Climate Neutral Business Network CEO Sue Hall, who wrote the new methodology and convened a third-party advisor group, including Professor Eban Goodstein from Bard College, to help guide Chevy in this unique partnership between industry and higher education. I also spoke with sustainability coordinator Roxane Beigel-Coryell and student Shaun Franks from Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Ore., and the United States Green Building Council's vice president for research and development. A compilation of those interviews follows.

Michele Madia: What spurred Chevrolet to work with colleges in this way?

David Tulauskas: Chevrolet supports the cause for cleaner air. We're reimagining manufacturing to lower environmental impact and designing efficient vehicles. But there are other ways to fuel the clean-energy movement beyond transportation and industry. To us, it's about finding the innovators who are doing big things to leave a smaller footprint.

As demonstrated by the leadership of the American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment, colleges across the country are aggressively improving their energy efficiency and engaging the next generation along the way. By collaborating with strong higher education and NGO partners, we developed a way to monetize campuses' progress, providing institutions with an entirely new source of capital from the U.S. voluntary carbon market to reinvest in even more clean energy technologies.

Madia: What is Chevrolet's ultimate goal with this effort?

Tulauskas: This is all part of Chevrolet's voluntary carbon-reduction initiative. Our goal is not only to remove 8 million metric tons of carbon from entering our air through supporting community-based projects that may have large-scale impact, but to get more people thinking about carbon and finding new ways to reduce it in their own backyard. Carbon may not be a conversation topic at your dining room table tonight, but we think it should be.

Madia: How did you develop the idea?

Tulauskas: We worked closely with a team of third-party environmental advisors and one of them, Professor Eban Goodstein of Bard College, recommended we develop an entirely new carbon credit methodology to empower universities and schools to bring forward eligible clean energy projects (whether for LEED-certified buildings or on a campus-wide basis) so that Chevy could purchase and retire credits. The money would help them drive even deeper carbon reductions. It was a novel approach.

Eban Goodstein: In the past, campuses purchased other organizations' carbon credits to help achieve carbon neutrality. Now they are earning revenues for the carbon reductions achieved right on their own sites, where the long-term clean energy benefits lie for their community.

Madia: How can Chevy credibly purchase carbon from campuses?

Sue Hall: All Chevy's carbon project purchases have been independently certified by groups such as the Verified Carbon Standard. So in order for campuses to be able to sell their clean energy project reductions as carbon credits, Chevy had to develop an entirely new VCS Campus Clean Energy Efficiency methodology against which a campus would certify its carbon reductions.

The ACUPCC, along with many leading pilot campuses, played a vital role in the development of this methodology. For example, without the five years of ACUPCC performance data from more than 600 campuses' GHG reports, it would not have even been possible to create the new campus-wide performance methodology that was approved by VCS. More than 50 higher education stakeholders, too numerous to mention here, helped shape the credible foundations for the methodology and are publicly acknowledged in the methodology itself.

Credit: David Cosand via Flickr

Madia: How did Chevy find qualified universities to earn its funding?

Hall: We partnered with several organizations, such as U.S. Green Building Council, and connected with folks at the Association for the Advancement of Higher Education conference in Portland. That's where we met Shaun Franks, an undergraduate at Southern Oregon University. He heard about the new Chevy funding and brought his school's sustainability director to meet the team. We found that SOU had an outstanding set of LEED residence buildings, with more than 40 percent improvements in energy use intensity over code, which more than qualified them as a certifiable project.

Shaun Franks: SOU has sustainability deeply rooted in our culture on campus, so when I heard about this Chevy funding opportunity I took action and ran with it. I'm so inspired by my experiences helping SOU improve its environmental performance that I'm now searching for a job in this field.

Madia: What would convince SOU to sell their reductions to Chevy to retire the credits?

Hall: In terms of return on investment, according to the U.S. Green Building Council, it costs an extra $3 per square foot to bring a building to LEED standards: The new carbon revenues could contribute 10-25 percent towards that incremental expenditure.

<Chris Pyke: The new VCS-approved methodology offers LEED-certified projects the opportunity to receive recognition for exceptionally energy efficient design and reward them with a stream of payments for continued high performance operations. In an example shared on Insight.gbig.org, a building could recoup 10-25 percent of the initial marginal capital costs required to upgrade energy efficiency to qualify for the VCS methodology. This is a significant incentive and well-deserved recognition.

Madia: What interested SOU in this opportunity?

Roxane Beigel-Coryell: SOU's two LEED-certified student residence halls, which use solar power for hot water and to power students' computers, could garner around $60,000 in total credit funding over a 10-year period. The campus had originally secured local private sector funding to build its residence halls to LEED Gold levels — above and beyond what would have been possible if we'd relied on conventional state sources. It can be difficult for campuses to find dedicated funding to support our clean energy leadership, so seeking innovative sources of funding from Chevy was an opportunity that SOU couldn't pass up.

Credit: woaiss via ShutterstockMadia: How does this help a building to deliver on its fullest potential?

Hall: As SOU began monitoring their buildings' actual performance, it encountered a common challenge — the performance didn't match the original design specs. Since USGBC has increasingly been emphasizing the need to link building design goals with operational performance measures, it hoped that this new carbon funding would motivate LEED buildings to address this very issue — by requiring performance evaluations for the credits and providing a revenue stream to make necessary updates to get them there.

Madia: Do the students play a role in the process?

Tulauskas: Absolutely, and that's what we had hoped for from the beginning. Again, we want people to start thinking about carbon. Starting in the fall, SOU's student body will help spearhead a process to drive the performance of these buildings' energy consumption above and even beyond their full potential. These schools are long on talent and innovation, just short on cash. This program helps with that.

Beigel-Coryell: We'll implement a behavioral communications program with students living in the dorms to help find opportunities. At SOU we pride ourselves on the wealth of talent, innovation and leadership within our community. Our partnership with Chevrolet is another opportunity for our students to engage with the LEED buildings they live in, while helping SOU achieve our carbon reduction goals (and earn new carbon revenues!).

Madia: What are some of the results you're seeing at other colleges?

Hall: There are many universities maximizing their carbon credit revenues. Valencia College in Florida saved more than $2.7 million from its behavioral change program. Ball State University in Indiana has a campus-wide geothermal system that will earn about $500,000 from Chevy. And University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign will garner more than $1 million toward further energy efficiency improvements thanks to matched funding from the university.

Madia: What happens when Chevy meets its commitment? Can colleges still take advantage of this program?

Tulauskas: This methodology will exist long after we meet our commitment; campuses will just need another buyer of their credits. Going forward, colleges can secure funding from the broader U.S. voluntary carbon market — from companies such as Microsoft, Disney, Interface and other corporate leaders that have helped pioneer and expand the purchasing of such credits. With a U.S. market now valued (PDF) at about $100 million annually, this opens a powerful new source of capital to help drive clean energy efficiency gains in our schools and universities across the nation. Companies are already stepping up to explore these campus energy efficiency project investments.

Madia: What's the potential impact of this project?

Tulauskas: We've devoted several million dollars to our campus energy efficiency projects and will retire over 500,000 tons of carbon credits from them; but our legacy lies with the door we've opened for campuses to gain funding from the wider U.S. carbon market funding and with the students that are more knowledgeable about carbon and enthused to continue making a difference for a long time. The new methodology enables so many more companies and investors to now purchase campus energy efficiency credits in ways that will help maximize the efficiency of our energy systems countrywide.

Madia: Other than the colleges you referenced, who else is taking advantage of this new funding?

Hall: Another eight campuses are lined up alongside SOU, UIUC, Ball State and Valencia to announce similarly compelling carbon project earnings from Chevy this fall.

Madia: Could this ever expand beyond the education community?

Hall: We hope so. The precedent is now set for LEED buildings to earn carbon credits. It's possible to use that foundation and expand the methodology so that other LEED-certified offices, homes and community venues can access such carbon funding. There's opportunity for other companies to now partner and build upon these clean energy efficiency gains.

Pyke: Many of our partners not only have LEED buildings of their own that could potentially earn such carbon credit funding to drive even deeper energy efficiency performance levels — but they also invest in RECs and carbon credits in ways that could drive LEED building performances across yet more sectors. We hope that other companies will now build upon Chevy's legacy to maximize the new LEED clean energy efficiency gains we can deliver as a nation.

Top image of pencil and leaf by KPG_Payless via Shutterstock.