Q&A: Michael Kinsley, RMI

Michael Kinsley, a senior consultant at Rocky Mountain Institute, helped coordinate a team of experts who compiled information for the institute’s new publication, “Accelerating Campus Climate Initiatives: Breaking Through the Barriers.” The guide was created in concert with the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education and examines several barriers and solutions for climate change initiatives at school campuses. Researchers visited 12 colleges and universities to get a better understanding of the issues involved with introducing climate initiatives. Kinsley spoke with School Construction News in a phone interview from Colorado.

Q: What trends did you see in regards to sustainability on campuses in 2009, and what trends do you anticipate in 2010?

A: Only a few years ago, ideas like greening, sustainability, climate plans and energy efficiency were out on the fringe, and there were only a few people talking about it. Now, those are all mainstream ideas. The fact that it’s mainstream doesn’t mean the work is done by any stretch of the imagination. These ideas are just entering the mainstream, which makes now a really exciting time.

It’s a huge opportunity for people who are providing services related to green, such as energy efficiency and renewable energy, and it’s a huge opportunity for people who are part of organizations that are attempting to improve their performance with regard to the environment and climate.

People in the facilities business who are administrators and have their feet firmly planted in the old-school way of doing things are going to be left behind. People who understand there is huge opportunity for their organization inherent in these relatively new ideas are going to be hugely successful.

Q: How hast the economy affected the growth of the green industry?

A: To state the obvious, there are many different influences. If you are a facilities director at a school or college, your budget is probably being slashed and you are in a very difficult situation. On the other hand, people who are in that situation often understand there is a business proposition in, for instance, energy-efficiency building retrofits. They know there is a genuine return on investment, and they understand that even in a down economy there are real opportunities.

Q: Slashed budgets are one of the primary barriers for green initiatives listed in your guide. How are campuses overcoming that particular problem?

A: Again, there are many answers. One way is to develop within the organization a more sophisticated idea or perception with regard to the apparent burden that inefficient buildings impose on an organization — whether it’s a high school or college research lab. Certainly, people who are in administrative positions in those organizations regard those buildings as a substantial burden and a huge challenge to the budget.

An important part of innovation is not just technology but a different way of thinking about a problem. We re-frame our perception of a building, for example, and think about ways it can be an investment opportunity instead of a burden.

There are certain colleges that have internal revolving loan funds that can be used to perform energy-efficiency retrofits, which causes a substantial savings in the operating cost, and that can be used to pay the capital costs of the retrofits. It becomes a source of revenue over time because of avoided costs.

With integrated design, there are real opportunities for systemic savings. An energy-efficient building might have a list of five to 40 items that might be included in the design, each one of which has a cost. The old-school approach is to look at each of those measures independently and examine the payback period for each of those costs.

That sounds perfectly reasonable, but it ignores systemic opportunities. If that building is well designed and includes those features, it will almost certainly create a substantial reduction in the heating and cooling system, and the capital cost savings in many cases is so great it pays for all of the efficiency improvements.
Q: Does it seem like the old-school mentality is changing?

A: Absolutely. It’s changing very rapidly. It’s happening as people become more comfortable.

Q: Another point in the publications is the role students can play in finding solutions and overcoming barriers. How can higher education students help promote change?

A: Students are regarded, in part, by the college and university as customers. If the customer is demanding a product or a service that is climate friendly, and if the people who the college is recruiting are demanding a climate-friendly environment, that message is unambiguous to the people who are running that facility. The student body can have a very profound effect on the people who are running that facility.

Students can also have a substantial effect with their own activities by practicing more energy-efficient behavior. Competitions to minimize the amount of energy consumed in each dormitory are valuable to reduce energy costs and raise awareness about the issue.

Even efforts on a campus that may not be focused on the most efficacious measure or solution are valuable. On one campus, a wind turbine was installed primarily because it was a tech school and they wanted to train people to work on wind turbines. They didn’t do it because it was an electricity generation source, although it was that to a minimal degree. It had very little effect as a climate mitigation effort, but it began to change the perception of who the students, faculty and administrators were as a campus. A turbine in iconic, and it is now part of the symbol of the campus. It spurred a new kind of thinking.

Q: Did anything jump out at as particularly interesting or insightful while you were putting the publications together?

A: There is a sea change taking place, and the old way of doing business is really in the past. The future is more integrative design and decision-making. It’s exciting.

I didn’t know a lot about facilities people before I started this project, and after sitting with many of them, I realized how frustrating it is for facilities people when they are working with lousy equipment and inefficient buildings. People in the facilities business don’t like to have dissatisfied occupants, and when they have more efficient buildings and sophisticated control systems, they feel better about their jobs.                                 L

Researchers from RMI visited12 campuses:

• Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colo.
• Furman University, Greenville, S.C.
• Harford Community College, Bel Air, Md.
• Lakeshore Technical College, Cleveland, Wis.
• Luther College, Decorah, Iowa
• Richland College, Dallas, Texas
• Tufts University, Medford, Mass.
• Unity College, Unity, Maine
• University of Minnesota at Morris, Morris, Minn.
• University of Missouri, Columbia, Mo.
• University of Vermont, Burlington, Vt.
• Yale University, New Haven, Conn.
Rocky Mountain Institute

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