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03/03/2011 08:00:00

Greening Caltech's Bottom Line

You can see signs of Caltech's commitment to sustainability everywhere you look on campus: there are recycling centers, LEED-certified buildings, and arrays of solar panels, not to mention landscaping that uses drought-tolerant plants, and dining rooms that feature compostable utensils.

But some of the campus's most impressive efforts are also its least visible ones. Caltech's efforts to finance urgently needed energy-efficiency upgrades—and to do so in ways that give back to the Institute—have been recognized by the Sustainable Endowments Institute in its recently released report, Greening the Bottom Line: The Trend toward Green Revolving Funds on Campus.

Green revolving funds are monies set aside to finance needed upgrades that will increase the efficiency of energy use; these projects are funded based on their likelihood to return the capital spent on them—plus some—once the reductions in energy use or operating expenses are realized. And it's that return on capital that allows the funds to revolve—to be used for yet another energy-saving project.

Caltech's own green revolving fund—the Caltech Energy Conservation Investment Program (CECIP)—was initiated in 2009, and it manages $8 million within an existing endowment created to finance capital projects.

"CECIP allows Caltech to effectively deploy capital to realize energy and cost savings from energy-conservation measures that would otherwise be unfunded," says John Onderdonk, Caltech's manager for sustainability programs. "It's a perfect example of Caltech's sustainability vision in that it reduces the campus's environmental footprint while enhancing the Institute's core mission."

The projects' impact has been nothing if not impressive. According to the Sustainability Research Institute, the efficiency measures funded by Caltech's CECIP has allowed an average return on investment of 33 percent, and had—by August 2010—reduced the Institute's energy bills by $1.5 million.

What's perhaps more impressive is that these projects aren't the high-visibility, easy-to-get funded initiatives like rooftop solar panels. "A lot of the work done through CECIP is behind the scenes," Onderdonk says.

Among the projects that CECIP has funded in the past two years are heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning upgrades at the Broad Center; the installation of auto-closing flume hoods in the Schlinger Laboratory; an LED lighting upgrade in the South Wilson Parking Structure; and lighting upgrades at South Mudd, North Mudd, the Beckman Institute, and the Keck Laboratories.

Any member of the Caltech community is welcome to submit a project proposal, says Onderdonk; projects will be approved if they have a 15 percent return on investment or a simple payback period of less than six years.

For more information on the efforts being made to reduce Caltech's environmental impact and promote stewardship within the Caltech community, visit Sustainability at Caltech.

Written by Lori Oliwenstein