'Green' Efforts Ease UC's Utility Bills

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In a cramped classroom, junior Katya Cherukumilli stands in front of a projector, looking out at a dozen of her seated peers. Here, on the seventh floor of Wurster Hall, she comes twice a week to lead a project-based class trying to effect environmental change at UC Berkeley.

Cherukumilli has taught this course - in which students work to implement "green" efforts like composting programs and energy-efficient lighting - for the past three semesters. The class is one of many ways the student group Building Sustainability at Cal, for which she is a coordinator, has tried to reduce the ecological impact of campus buildings.

This endeavor serves a double duty. Not only does it lower greenhouse gas emissions - it also relieves campus financial strain. Similar initiatives, created by students working to cultivate a culture of sustainability, are also cropping up at other UC campuses, all of which are facing budget cuts as the economic crisis worsens and the UC's growing student and staff population becomes aware of its deepening environmental footprint.

But this lack of funding might actually be yielding a positive side effect: campuses are driven to save energy.

"You always have more incentive to conserve when you see the bill directly," said Ellen Hanak, an economist who specializes in natural resource management and a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California. "It comes at a time when people are sort of already looking to be more sustainable. It certainly reinforces that."

Every year, between $280 million and $300 million worth of utilities - mainly electricity and natural gas - are used by the university system, $40 million of which falls on the campuses, according to UC spokesperson Steve Montiel.

Historically, the UC has received money from the state to cover utilities costs for buildings that are eligible for state support - those that are used for research and instruction - which make up about half the total UC space. Over the past 10 years, and as the state's economy started to plummet, California has struggled to provide funding. Although the UC has redirected millions to ease the strain from these expenses, it has become each campus's responsibility to fill this gap.

At UC Berkeley, $9.9 million and $6.4 million in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 academic years, respectively, were used for utility bills for state-eligible buildings, according to campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof. That amount comes from discretionary funds that would otherwise offset cuts to other areas.

"It's a shame to have to dip into the funds that would go into teaching and research," said Andy Coghlan, sustainability specialist at the UC Office of the President.

Over the past 10 years, UC enrollment has increased by about 73,000 students and, to accommodate for this rise, has made a more than 20 percent expansion in state-eligible space, according to Montiel, placing severe financial pressure on the UC that trickles down to campuses.

At UC Davis, about one-third of a $30 million utility bill falls to campus funds, according to Jeff Lefkoff, director of campus space and planning management. A $4 million to $5 million utility bill is expected to be absorbed by UCLA in the upcoming year, according to Nurit Katz, campus sustainability coordinator.

Both said although not prompted by budget cuts, projects to install new lighting, cooling and heating systems ease budget shortfalls, at the same time making campuses more eco-friendly.

"It's all kind of part of the same thing," Katz said. "We're focusing on saving money and saving energy, but certainly to have utilities be underfunded there's even more motivation to save energy."

At the UC level, energy-saving programs began to emerge as state funding waned. The 2003-04 and 2004-05 academic years marked the first time the state did not provide funding for the operation of new buildings - about a $14 million loss - and in 2004-05, the UC entered into the Energy Efficiency Partnership, a collaboration with the CSU system and large utility companies that aimed to conserve energy and costs statewide.

And as the belt-tightening continues into a new decade, the UC is still attempting to mitigate cutbacks with energy efficiency.

In early 2009, the UC Board of Regents approved the more than $262 million Statewide Energy Partnership - a three-year collaboration with state utility companies expected to decrease energy usage by 11 percent and natural gas by 8 percent. Overall, a $36 million annual reduction is expected.

But making a dent in costs has been challenging - since 2001, energy prices have increased 120 percent, said Montiel in an e-mail.

At UC Berkeley, electricity usage went down by about half a percentage in 2009-10, but the total bill went up by almost $1 million, according to Christine Shaff, communications director for facilities services.

As the UC tries to shrink its utility bills, so do campuses, but even with hundreds of initiatives systemwide, significantly alleviating the consequences of the budget cuts with energy-efficiency programs proves difficult.

"It's something we would be doing anyway," Katz said. "It all kind of fits together. We're definitely struggling."


Soumya Karlamangla is the lead environment reporter. Contact her at [email protected]

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