UNCF Green Building Institute Focuses on Helping Schools Find Funds, Save on Costs

WASHINGTON, D.C. – To tap into federal money to make campus infrastructures more energy efficient, college and university leaders must be strategic, collaborative and pay close attention to details when submitting proposals.

At the same time, grants should not be seen as the only source of revenue for green projects, and campus leaders should search for creative ways to finance the projects, such as using the savings from retrofitted buildings to establish “green revolving funds” to upgrade other buildings.

Those were just a few of the tips that Obama administration officials and environmental and finance experts provided at the UNCF Building Green Learning Institute held late last week at the Hyatt Regency Washington on Capitol Hill.

The institute — the fourth of its kind and the first one to be national in scope — drew several hundred participants from an array of minority-serving institutions and various green organizations throughout the country.

Discussions ranged from the importance of recycling and having students lead recycling initiatives, to updates on green construction projects, such as such a planned Center for Alternative, Renewable Energy, Technology and Training at Clark Atlanta University, to the importance of working with specific disadvantaged student populations to smoothen the path to various educational and work experiences in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields and the green economy.

A federal official also announced a forthcoming solicitation for a research and demonstration project that deals with drinking water treatment.

The institute comes at a time when cost-savings through reduction of energy consumption and other efficiencies are seen as a crucial way to offset the impact of budget reductions and other fiscal constraints that face U.S. higher education institutions today.

Meldon S. Hollis, Jr., associate director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, urged attendees to form alliances with other like-minded individuals and put together detailed plans on their capacity and how the federal government can support their projects. Then, Hollis said, it’s a matter of finding the federal agency with which their plans are most closely aligned.

“Once you’ve done that,” Hollis said, “we can begin to manipulate our processes and procedures” to help the institutions achieve their efficiency goals.

Jeanette L. Brown, director of the Office of Small Business Programs at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, also emphasized the importance of collaboration when it comes to submitting proposals.

However, Brown lamented that too often proposals are not in line with the mission of a federal agency or lack detailed information. Further, Brown related that very rarely do minority-serving institutions make inquiries about where they went wrong on their grant applications in order to improve their chances of getting a proposal accepted in the future.

“If you don’t win, you should ask for a debriefing to find out why you did not make it, not based on what somebody else did, but what you could have done or what you did in your proposal that didn’t cause it to win so that you can build on that and win the next time,” Brown said.

“Over and over again,” Brown continued, “we see institutions making the same mistakes and people aren’t coming back and asking what happened. We owe you (an explanation). In the area of government contracting, this is the law. But we won’t tell you if you don’t ask.”

Patricia Durrant, the EPA’s national program manager for minority academic institutions, said that not enough minority-serving institutions are participating in green initiatives.

For instance, she said, of the 630 institutions of higher learning that are participating in RecycleMania, a project that involves benchmarking and competition among universities to promote recycling and reduce waste, only 28, or roughly 4 percent, are minority academic institutions.

“I know we can do better,” Durrant said of participation in RecycleMania.

Durrant also announced a solicitation that is expected to appear on the EPA’s Web site on June 20. It is called the “Research and Demonstration Innovative Drinking Water Treatment Technologies and Small Systems” and will be open for 60 days, with funds being awarded by Dec. 31.

However, one speaker at a panel discussion, titled “Financing Green Building,” suggested that universities should not count on grants exclusively to finance their green projects.

“Grants are not sustainable finance,” said Glenn Barnes, senior project director at the Environmental Finance Center in the School of Government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“Grants are nice,” Barnes said. “But the simple fact is you cannot count on getting a grant year after year.”

He urged attendees to explore the use of “green revolving funds” where you take the savings from a building that’s been made more efficient and invest it in other buildings, so that — theoretically, at least — the funds would “go into perpetuity.”

Dr. Nancy G. Maynard, project manager at the NASA Tribal College and University Project, spoke of ways to overcome the challenges faced by tribal college students in taking advantage of the program, which involves externships in the STEM fields.

“Some students may have never taken science,” Maynard said, adding that one way to make up for the lack of science instruction is to offer the students science prep courses in advance of their externships.

In order to pique and retain the interest of tribal college students, it is helpful to do green projects that are of practical use on Indian reservations, where housing is often substandard and greatly need of heating and cooling upgrades, Maynard said.

“Try to develop a project that has meaning for the student back home,” Maynard said. “A student is not going to be motivated to take physics or math or chemistry if there’s no reason or application at the other end.”