Episode 6: The Path to 100% Renewable Energy - an Interview with Bronte Payne of Environment America - Transcript

Back to Episode 6

Dave Karlsgodt 0:00

Welcome to the Campus Energy and Sustainability Podcast. In each episode, we'll talk with leading campus professionals, thought leaders, engineers and innovators addressing the unique challenges and opportunities facing higher ed and corporate campuses. Our discussions will range from energy conservation and efficiency to planning and finance, from building science to social science, from energy systems to food systems. We hope you're ready to learn, share and ultimately accelerate your institution towards solutions. I'm your host Dave Karlsgodt. I'm a principal at Fovea, an energy, carbon, and business planning firm. My guest on this episode is Bronte Payne. Bronte is the Clean Energy Advocate with Environment America. In this interview, we'll discuss a recent report she co-authored with the Frontier Group, as well as an ongoing campaign by her organization, Environment America, that aims to move colleges and universities to commit to 100% renewable energy. We'll talk through some of the examples from this report, but also how students, faculty and staff can get involved with this campaign on their own campus. I hope you enjoy this August 2017 interview with Bronte Payne. Bronte, it's really great to have you on the show today.

Bronte Payne 1:10

Yeah, thank you. It's great to be on.

Dave Karlsgodt 1:12

So your organization, Environment America, recently co-authored a report with the Frontier Group entitled: Renewable Energy 100 The Course To A Carbon Free Campus. I have a lot of questions about this report specifically, but perhaps you can start with a bit of background on Environment America and the genesis of this report.

Bronte Payne 1:30

Yeah, absolutely. So I can start with a bit of a step back with some background on Environment America. We are a federation of state based and citizen funded environmental advocacy organizations working in 29 states across the country. And as an organization, we work to stand up for environmental values that we know so many Americans share, like clean air, clean water and protecting our open spaces. And in February of last year, we launched a campaign to get colleges and universities across the country committed to using 100% renewable energy. We know that we need to move away from fossil fuels as soon as possible and in order to do that, we want to harness the concerns about climate change and the enthusiasm for renewable energy on college and university campuses to accelerate the deployment and use of renewable energy on campuses so that the higher education community can be at the forefront of America's shift to renewable energy. To help us launch this campaign, we partnered with Frontier Group. They're a nonprofit, public interest research think tank to create this report, renewable energy 100 as a tool that students and campus administrators can use that shows that 100% renewable energy is feasible for colleges and university campuses, and give them a bit of a background and a primer on why campuses are such a good place for us to be making these commitments.

Dave Karlsgodt 2:59

Great. So if I understand it correctly, Environment America has worked at the federal, state and local levels. But this campaign is focused specifically on higher ed campuses. So maybe could you explain how this campaign fits together with the work you're doing at the other levels?

Bronte Payne 3:13

Yeah. So environment America, like I said, is a federal organization. And we have state based organizations as well. And that gives us the benefit of being able to work at the state, federal and on local issues. So we see the campaign to get colleges and universities to commit to 100% renewable energy to be a really critical part of Environment America's larger vision and our advocacy work on 100% renewable energy. So first and foremost, we envision a world where we're powered by 100% renewable energy, and we know that to get there, we need commitments to that goal anywhere and everywhere. So as you mentioned, Dave, we're working with a bunch of partners to get to that goal. So at the federal level, we're working in support of the Senate and House resolutions for 100% renewable energy, but most of our focus is going into winning state commitments to 100% renewable energy as well as campus commitments. We partnered with the student PIRGs, which are an independent statewide student organization that's working for nearly 40 years on issues like environmental protection, to work on college campuses to build the kind of political will that we're going to need to win these campus commitments and then have those campuses stand alongside us as we call on their states to make larger commitments. One really great example of where we're doing this work in Massachusetts, we helped put together the bill that would get Massachusetts to be the first state to commit to 100% renewable energy in the country, and then are working on nearly 15 campuses across the state to help build support for that bill as well as campus commitments.

Dave Karlsgodt 4:55

Great. So how are you guys funded? That is it mostly donations are grants?

Bronte Payne 4:58

Most of our funding comes from everyday citizens who pitch in some of their hard earned money to help us fund our advocacy work. And the student PIRGs are funded by students who want them to be able to advocate on their behalf for the things that care about the most.

Dave Karlsgodt 5:14

Okay, so back to this report. There were a lot of great success stories in there. And we can get into some of those in particular, but maybe you can just give us a little bit of background on the report that was the genesis of this podcast episode. What was your intention of creating this report and how do you expect it to be used?

Bronte Payne 5:30

We wanted to create this report to act as a primer to our overall campaign. We were releasing the report right at the beginning and wanted it to really create a foundation that students could use to talk about 100% renewable energy on their campus. The report doesn't dive in too much into how a campus would get to 100% renewable energy, that, of course, will vary pretty widely campus to campus, but focuses mostly on why campuses are an excellent place to start this campaign. And we know that a lot of campuses have done really great work moving towards reducing their energy use to putting more renewables on the grid, even if they're not committed to 100%. So we want to be able to highlight some of the work that's already been done. And then it touches pretty briefly on some pieces of how you would get to 100%. Things like energy conservation, solar, wind, geothermal, transportation on campus, as well as student behavior.

Dave Karlsgodt 6:29

Great. Like I liked the section where you described why college campuses are an ideal place for 100% renewable energy. I mean, this is near and dear to my heart, since that's primarily the people we work with. So some of the things you highlighted in here, there are roughly 5000 campuses that represent about 20 million students spending $14 billion a year. I assume that's on energy. And then there are 600 institutions that have made a commitment to carbon neutrality through Second Nature's Climate Leadership Commitment. That's great. And then, you know, you have the data point from AASHE: 600 solar installations on 330 campuses in 41 states. So there's a lot going on, it sounds like, already and and we see that too. But a question we get in our work all the time is why did we pick college campuses instead of focusing on residential or industrial customers? And for us, one of the big pieces is, you know, they're they control their whole universe, they're little islands of energy use. Is that some of the reasons you guys picked higher ed to start with or tell me more about that.

Bronte Payne 7:29

Yeah, definitely. So that's a great point, they do control their energy use and act as a great microcosm for the communities that they're in and the states that they're in. We also know that students have been at the forefront of social movements for as long as we can remember, especially when it's come to climate. So we know that working with students to get them active and engaged and mobilized on their campuses to get their campuses to make these commitments, sets us up to move the United States towards 100% renewable energy, but also teaches students lifelong skills that they can use to be better advocates for renewable energy and a fossil fuel free future moving forward.

Dave Karlsgodt 8:12

Excellent. And have you noticed any difference between public and private institutions as you've been doing this work?

Bronte Payne 8:19

So far, not a big difference. I think the one thing that we have found is regardless of public or private institutions, students are really excited to talk about some of the great solutions that we have to one of the biggest problems facing that generation right now.

Dave Karlsgodt 8:38

Alright, so let's get into some of the specifics from the report. So as I was going through this, there were definitely some sort of expected solutions, you know, solar and wind installations, for example, or some energy efficiency examples. But there were a few that were a little bit more surprising. But um, why don't you just talk us through some of those. So like some of the wind and solar examples you have in this report?

Bronte Payne 9:01

Yeah, absolutely. Some of the examples that we have on some of these more expected renewable energy technologies, I think, highlight a pretty wide range of campuses. So on wind energy, we get the chance to highlight the University of Delaware, which has a real history of being out front when it comes to renewable energy, particularly wind. And they actually use putting up some of these big wind turbines as an opportunity to teach students to build off of their great research that they've done, and to create more opportunities to train students to be future leaders on renewable energy, specifically on wind, I think that's a really good example of a campus using their resources to move towards renewables and cut down their use of fossil fuels and also as an educational tool for students. And then we move into Butte College, that had a lot of really excellent work on solar energy. And then Allegheny College also had done a lot of great work on conservation, reducing the energy use of their buildings. I think one of great things about this set of schools is pretty different in terms of size, and geography shows a good swath of campuses that have made really big strides towards renewable energy, even though on the surface, they might not have a lot in common.

Dave Karlsgodt 10:28

Yeah, that was striking about the report, you did seem to pick schools from all over the country. So this isn't just something that somebody in Southern California might be able to pull off. But you have examples from the northeast and the Midwest, as well. Well, let's talk about Ball State. I know they have recently done a major shift from coal to geothermal. I was glad to see that in the report, because in our in our work, you know, there's usually a lot of energy, pardon the pun, around solar will get behind that as a concept. But a lot of people don't really think about thermal energy, both heating and cooling on campus. So maybe you can talk briefly about Ball State and what they've done.

Bronte Payne 11:04

Yeah, so Ball State was historically powered by pretty big coal fired boilers. They're located in Indiana, obviously, it's pretty cold in that part of the country. But they made a really big switch, and put in place one of the nation's largest geothermal energy systems, which began operating in about 2012. And they did such an excellent job putting the system in that now it provides heating and cooling for more than 5 million square feet of space in their 47 buildings on campus. And this was able to move them completely away from their coal fired boilers.

Dave Karlsgodt 11:46

Yeah, one of the things I've run into related to thermal energy is eventually you just run into the basic problem of physics. I mean, you have to get enough heating and cooling into these campuses, especially for the vast amounts of research and hospital space they represent. You know, it's one thing to claim 100%, renewable electricity with wind and solar, especially if you're just counting them by total megawatt hours. But when you get into the heating and cooling systems on these campuses, the problem gets much more complex. Are there any other examples from this report beyond Ball State that speak to this thermal energy approach?

Bronte Payne 12:17

Yeah. So like you said, heating and cooling can be a really big challenge for campuses. But we've seen so far in our work that more campuses are starting to think really creatively about what solutions work for their specific campus. And in parts of the country, thermal energy can be a really great solution. Cornell University, for example, has a plan to get to carbon neutrality. And geothermal energy is a big part of that. And they plan on doing a lot of work and being at really the forefront of that technology to help get their campus to 100%, renewable energy and carbon neutrality. And we also think that something like thermal energy brings up the point that campuses are really a great place to do a lot of this research that will not only help their campus get to 100%, but eventually help a state and the country get to 100%. They have experts much more than we are on thermal energy, for example, that can do a lot of the work to figure out how to make these different technologies even better, so we can implement them on larger scales. And we think that making a commitment to something like 100% renewable energy drives research and drives campuses to be more creative and more at the forefront of figuring these solutions out.

Dave Karlsgodt 13:41

One of the things that you do touch on the report is behavior change. This is a topic for me that's a little bit tricky and that a lot of times we'll hear people talking a lot about behavior change. So getting students to turn lights off, etc, which is obviously a critical element of any plan, but I'm always trying how, how much time is spent on it a lot of times without there being much understanding of the impact, or the scale of impact. So meanwhile, you know, they have the science buildings that are using lots of energy, but they're talking about turning lights off in the dorm, which you know, by comparison is not that big of a deal. You do have an example here of student behavior change, which maybe you can speak to a little bit more and and how do you see that fitting in? Because maybe I'm just jaded and only thinking about the big central utility systems. Talk me through that or how you guys are thinking about it in this campaign?

Bronte Payne 14:31

Yeah, I think you're absolutely right. And the fact that behavior change on campus is a critical part to getting to 100% renewable energy, and particularly a critical part to reducing energy use on campus. And much like administrators and energy managers, and sustainability directors need to be more creative in how they run their campus and how they're using energy on campus, students can be more creative too. They should see themselves as being part of the solution and understand the role that they play in the campus's energy use. So students can push for a change to get their campus to commit to 100% renewable energy and then also help the campus get there by reducing the energy that they use and reducing the energy that the campus uses at large. And we know that social interaction programs like competitions, or games or community initiatives are relatively cheap and easy to implement. Students can do a lot in terms of leading those things. And they can also foster a long term awareness of energy use and the climate impacts of energy consumption among students and faculty, which can have long term effects on reducing the energy use on a college campus.

Dave Karlsgodt 15:46

Well, fair enough. That brings up a related question I have for you, Bronte, which is one of the tactics we've seen used from time to time by campus administrators, you know, diabolically I should say is that when a group of students gets really involved and then maybe draws attention to one of these issues, the administration just simply waits them out because eventually the students have to graduate. Have you read into that? Or I suppose as an organization that's running a campaign focused on engaging students, how are you dealing with that challenge as you try to take these ideas in the report and implement them on the campuses?

Bronte Payne 16:20

Mhmm. Yeah, it is definitely something that happens on a college campus with students graduating or going on study abroad, for example, something I experienced myself as a student. But one of the great things about our organization or the student perks, being able to partner with students on campus, is that we help support student groups by providing a lot of institutional knowledge and can also help run a long-term sustained campaign since we aren't at risk of graduating anytime soon. We can also help build a lot of momentum and keep momentum going through different cycles of students. And we know that students are at the forefront of activism and movement and that's not going to change anytime soon, even if students are graduating. They actually can do a really great job of passing on institutional knowledge and passing the torch to classes below them to keep campaigns like this going.

Dave Karlsgodt 17:15

Alright, so we've, we've hit a couple of different spaces here. We've talked about solar, we've talked about wind, energy conservation, thermal strategies, behavior change. One of the other pieces you do touch on, which is a bit of a gnarly topic that we run into all the time, are the use of renewable energy credits, those are basically rather than you putting solar panels on your campus that you're, you're buying the environmental attributes of somebody else's solar project. So there's some debate about whether that's a real change or not, I won't venture opinion on my own, but are you guys using RECs as part of your strategy? Or, you know, could you speak to that briefly because I know that's a topic that people get tied up in knots about a little bit.

Bronte Payne 17:59

Yeah, absolutely. It's something that comes up a lot in the renewable energy space on campuses. We think RECs are a good short term solution and that, really, when talking about RECs, the biggest thing is that they need to be high integrity and if you go into the report, we actually include a section on how you can ensure the integrity of RECs.

Dave Karlsgodt 18:21

One of the things that really struck me about reading this report was that you guys talk about this being a pursuit of 100%, renewable energy and not carbon neutrality. And there's there those are not necessarily the same thing. Can you speak to that? Was that a decision that was intentional, or where did that come from?

Bronte Payne 18:41

Yeah, so it was definitely an intentional decision, and one that we thought a lot about. Of course, many campuses, 600 plus, have made commitments to carbon neutrality across the country. And the way that we thought about it was first, we had talked a lot with Second Nature, who's done a really excellent job or organizing administrators and getting those commitments to carbon neutrality. But we think that talking about 100% renewable energy is a better organizing tool that can help excite and mobilize students. It's a little bit less wonky and in the weeds from something like carbon neutrality, but one of the biggest things is that we see carbon neutrality and 100% renewable energy as running on parallel tracks. You as a campus can't get to carbon neutrality without it looking a lot like 100% renewable energy, unless you're planning on planting thousands and thousands of trees summer in Belize as an offset. Attaining carbon neutrality looks a lot like 100%. And we think mobilizing students around 100% renewable energy gets them excited and will help a campus achieve their carbon neutrality goals as well.

Dave Karlsgodt 19:49

Well, yeah, I can definitely relate to that. And, you know, we get pulled into these carbon accounting discussions all the time and all the wonky discussions you can get pulled into and I try to explain people what I do that are not in this space, and I'm usually not very successful unless they start, they "oh you solar panels," right. Yeah. So that's, I guess that makes sense from a strategic perspective.

Bronte Payne 20:11

Yeah, exactly. And on the bigger point, we're running campaigns at the federal level, and at the state level, and in some cases, the city level for 100% renewable energy. So it allows us to use a common message across all of our campaigns.

Dave Karlsgodt 20:26

Right, if I'm putting the pieces together, then correctly, then we have Second Nature, which is really focused on getting campuses committed to carbon neutrality. And you guys are focusing more on the renewable energy piece and not just on campuses, but in the broader regions or states where they're located. And you know, that gets at another challenge we run into a lot with campuses, since they're buying electricity from their local grid, and they only have so much control or impact on where that's coming from or what they can do about it. But okay, that makes sense. Well, you spoke up front about how this is more about explaining that 100% renewable energy is possible, not necessarily, this is not really an implementation guide, so to speak, in this particular report. That said, as an organization, I'm sure you guys are thinking about implementation. And a key piece of that would be: how do you fund these projects? So have you looked into creating funding strategies like green revolving funds, or creative ways of getting capital to pursue these bigger efforts, since I assume many of these would be fairly expensive? Or at least maybe capital intensive, if even if they had a payback? Like so how do you, how do you guys think about that, or how you're approaching that as an organization?

Bronte Payne 21:36

We definitely agree it's a big piece of the puzzle. But we are ready to acknowledge the funding mechanism is not our focus, and definitely not our expertise. Luckily, we know there are a lot of organizations that do think a lot about how we could fund these renewable energy projects. Groups like Second Nature, and then also Intentional Endowments work a lot on how to use your endowment, and as a campus, how to fund these big renewable energy projects. So we think if someone is committed, but financing was a barrier, we would be able to help them connect with the right organizations so they could figure out the funding mechanism.

Dave Karlsgodt 22:15

Got it. So you guys are focused more on the the strategy to get people excited about it, and to get the information out there about how to how it is possible. But to then partnering with people that are more on the specific implementation of some of these aspects. Is that fair?

Bronte Payne 22:30

Yeah, exactly. We see our role as educating students and faculty, staff, administrators on why it would be so important for their campus to make this commitment and building the political will on campus for that commitment to happen.

Dave Karlsgodt 22:45

Great, well, then talk me through so we have this report, you know, an educational piece there. What are your plans for the campaign at large that I know. It sounds like you're doing work beyond campuses as well as an organization. But, specific to this campaign and particular to, you know, people at campuses, what can they expect from you in the future?

Bronte Payne 23:02

Yeah. So our long term strategy on this campaign is to harness the concern about climate change that I mentioned earlier, and the enthusiasm for renewable energy that we see on college campuses. I think, particularly at this time, in politics people are really craving some solutions and something positive that they can focus on and talk about. So we want to use that to engage and mobilize students and faculty and staff, as well as alumni, to show that there is a lot of breadth and depth of support for renewable energy, and specifically for campuses to make these visionary commitments. So we released this report on about 30 campuses around the country in the spring and actually have a set of fact sheets, a series, that go more in depth into a lot of the points that we talked about in this report coming out this fall as we continue work on a lot of campuses. We're going to be working on about 40 campuses across the country this fall. And we know that we're going to work with some core groups of students on campus and faculty that have the benefit of not graduating as well, to continue to build momentum for these commitments on campuses. Simultaneously, we'll be working on state commitments and a lot of the states that we're working on these campuses in, we'll be doing direct advocacy with the administration, helping students learn how to do direct advocacy, so they can do this work for the long term. And then, as one of the organizations that students partner with we'll be able to provide them resources, both on the research side, but also on the advocacy side for students, faculty, and staff. And we think eventually, we will be able to get enough campuses committed to 100% renewable energy that this will be the normal thing to do. At a certain point, we hope to make 100% renewable energy something that is a no-brainer for a campus to do that helps build support across the country for a larger shift.

Dave Karlsgodt 25:12

So I like the vision. Can you talk specifically about that? So if I'm a student, what would I do to get involved specifically?

Bronte Payne 25:20

Yeah, so first step would be reaching out to myself, someone at Environment America, someone at the student PIRGs, to get resources. We plan on launching a website that helps students get involved on their own in January. But reaching out to somebody to get the resources to help get a campaign plan, get access to the reports that we've done on 100% renewable energy, and then they could be an intern with one of those groups, but work with us to help develop a plan to get their campus from where they are now to a commitment to 100% renewable energy.

Dave Karlsgodt 25:58

Great. And is there a university-specific commitment that people make similar to what Second Nature has done with the carbon neutrality commitment? I mean is there something that you get a president to sign or what does commitment look like? Or is that more to be determined by each campus?

Bronte Payne 26:13

Yeah, so a commitment looks like something that a president or a chancellor, for example, signs saying that they are going to commit their campus to 100% renewable energy, and that the decisions that they make, while on their way are in service of that goal. So for example, you would not build a new gas plant on your campus while getting to 100% renewable energy. So it is a firm, in-writing commitment.

Dave Karlsgodt 26:37

Okay, so students can reach out to you directly and learn more, and I assume staff and faculty can do the same. But let's say somebody reaches out to you directly. Talk me through what it would look like to implement this on a particular campus.

Bronte Payne 26:50

So the first step for any campus would be building broad based support from students. True grassroots campaign. So a lot of students who partner with us start by doing a lot of petitioning showing that there is huge support from the students on that campus to get to 100% renewable energy. From there, they would probably go around and talk to faculty and staff, get staff on board. They are, of course, some of the experts on campus, get them to endorse the idea that campus making a commitment to 100% renewable energy. Campuses also have the benefit of having some common structures on every campus. I mean, like student government or a faculty senate, for example. Both of those groups can pass resolutions, which carry a little bit more weight in showing that the student body and the faculty care about protecting the environment and want to see the campus take action. And from there, they would be able to also do direct advocacy to figure out where the campus administration is at and what else they would need to do to help build the political will to make that commitment.

Dave Karlsgodt 27:53

Okay, that makes sense. So you guys have kind of done this before, you know what the structures are, so they don't have to start from scratch and make all the same as states that whoever did this first had to go through? I like that. Let me ask you a bit of a devil's advocate question here, if it may. There's been a lot of debate in the wonky energy community around, you know, carbon neutrality and 100% renewable energy. Many of the detractors of 100% renewable energy strategy will point to the concept that, you know, wind and solar in particular are, you know, not necessarily baseload power, they will claim. I'm not necessarily taking that position, but how do you guys answer that question? And what does that mean? I mean, 100%, renewable for a campus is much different than 100% renewable for the country at large. Can you speak to that question, because I'm sure that's something that people will get as an initial reaction to 100% as opposed to say, 80% with some other offset or something like that?

Bronte Payne 28:52

Yeah. So that's a good question. And definitely one that comes up. We know that there is still research and technology that can be developed to make the transition to 100% renewable energy easier and effective on a national or state level. But we think that campuses are a small enough microcosm that they would be able to achieve a commitment to 100% renewable energy.

Dave Karlsgodt 29:17

Great Bronte. As we wrap things up here, I wanted to give you the chance to tell our listeners how they can learn more about the great work you're doing at Environment America. Perhaps you have some resources or websites you'd like to plug here. Or if there's an email where people can get in touch with you directly.

Bronte Payne 29:33

I really excellent resource is the Environment America website. That's at environmentamerica.org. And if they're specifically interested in this report, you can do a quick search called renewable energy 100 the course to a carbon free campus. And then if anyone is interested in learning more about the campaign or talking a little bit more about their own campus, they can reach out to me at Bronte, which is bronte@environmentamerica.org.

Dave Karlsgodt 30:01

Excellent. Well, Bronte, I wanted to say thank you very much for coming on the show today and talking through this report. We'll be sure to put a link in the show notes for the report as well as the website and email you just mentioned. And I hope people will take a few minutes to read it for themselves. But I also wanted to say good luck as you continue this campaign. I look forward to hearing more about this in the near future. It sounds like you're doing some really great work out there. So hats off to you and thanks again for coming on the show.

Bronte Payne 30:29

Yeah, thank you. It's great to talk more about the report.

Dave Karlsgodt 30:33

That's it for this episode. As always, you'll find show notes on the website at campusenergypodcast.com. Please keep those show ideas coming and perhaps take a moment to write a review on iTunes to help us get the word out about the show. Thanks for listening.