Opinion | Michigan universities should be clean energy leaders.

Tom Porter is executive in residence at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. He runs the Porter Family Foundation and serves on the board of the Michigan Climate Action Network.

Michigan is fortunate to have many great colleges and universities, and some of the nation’s best.  They are fertile ground for innovation and ideas, and the training ground for our leaders. These institutions should be helping lead the clean energy revolution underway, which is key to addressing one of the greatest issues of our time.

With global temperatures increasing at an alarming and possibly irreversible rate, many Michiganders worry our state’s energy policy is not ambitious enough. They are right to be concerned.

Michigan ’s renewable energy goal of 15% by 2021 will not get us to the levels of greenhouse gas reductions needed to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.  To maintain a stable climate, scientists agree that we need to move off fossil fuels much more rapidly and achieve 80 to 100 percent clean, renewable energy by 2050.

With climate leadership lacking in our state government and climate policies under attack at the federal level, we need to look for leadership elsewhere.  Cities and businesses are stepping up as leaders. Colleges and universities should also be leading the transition to clean energy.

There are 42 four-year colleges and universities in Michigan serving approximately 475,000 students.   When combined with faculty and staff, these institutions of higher learning are the size of small cities, and can be a giant beacon for change for the people of Michigan and help us lower our carbon footprint.

Regrettably, today very few of Michigan’s colleges are paying attention to the climate crisis by establishing clear sustainability programs and practices or, even more importantly, setting specific clean energy goals. Only 10 Michigan colleges and universities, less than 20 percent, have specific goals to curb greenhouse gases.

The Michigan colleges and universities leading with clear, measurable climate goals are NOT the large Big Ten research universities that one would expect.  Other universities, like Central and Western Michigan Universities, were early leaders in setting measurable emissions goals and now need to update their goals to reflect the rapid rate at which the cost of renewable energy has become more than competitive with fossil fuel energy.

If global warming is even just one of the defining issues of our time, why are our institutions of higher learning so slow to get on the right side of history and set a great example for their students and their communities?  

Energy and sustainability must be a strong part of today’s vision and curriculum for institutions of higher learning to be competitive with other institutions and to be able to recruit and train students for a rapidly warming world, rising oceans, and a significant increase in major storm events. What a great way and perfect time for Universities to be able to put knowledge to practice while leading the way to utilize clean energy for all of their needs in the future.  And, in a time of severe economic pressure on the operating costs and rising tuition of our colleges and universities, what a great way to lower operating costs by becoming more energy efficient and by using cleaner, less expensive sources of energy like wind and solar energies that are now less expensive than fossil fuel energy.

Clean energy leadership by colleges and universities has a real multiplier effect on the communities in which they are housed.  The 42 colleges and universities in a study conducted by the Michigan Climate Action Network are housed in 35 Michigan communities. By partnering with local communities for energy and infrastructure needs colleges can not only help communities purchase clean, renewable energy, but they can also collaborate with their communities for greater leverage on a variety of strategies such as joint purchasing of electric vehicles, joint leverage with the local utility for more renewable energy, community solar, community biomass projects, etc.  Communities can also provide Universities with employment opportunities for students interested in sustainability.

The impact that colleges and universities could have in leading Michigan to carbon neutrality and long- term sustainability is monumental, particularly when they collaborate with their communities. The potential for teaching Michiganders about effective climate mitigation and resilience strategies and for lowering the carbon emissions in our state is fantastic.  

It is time to contact the college or university in your community, and the college where you received your degree, to encourage them to put their emissions and sustainability goals in writing and set an example for their students, their communities and their state to follow.  We only have one planet, let’s make the most of it!

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Sat, 06/09/2018 - 12:09am

What does Mr. Porter mean by 'clean energy', does he mean the original source such as the sun or does he include the means of building the energy collection and distributing the energy.
What does he mean by renewable energy, for electricity does he include the rare earth materials used in the batteries that facilitate the use of electricity such as in 'electric cars' or other devices? Does he include organic fuels, such as those formed from various forms of plant life, including trees?

It seems that those at the Ross business school may have a narrow and convenient definition of 'clean energy' and distribution system that is necessary for us to use that 'clean energy'. I wonder if Mr. Porter has talk to the scientist and engineers that work in the practical side of energy and have asked how energy goes from untapped to used, if he realizes the those wind turbines and solar cells may not be built with his version of 'clean and renewable energy.' I have seen those wind turbines delivered to Michigan on freighters from Europe, and they weren't wind or solar powered vessels, that probably and inconvenient truth to his vision of the purity of the university experience and practices.

Mr. Porter seems like one proverbial 'Ivory Tower' guys that doesn't dirty his hands with the practical side of energy. He seems to believe that those who are spending other people's money should spend it based on his principles of environmental responsibility [principle overruling financial accountability].
Rather then saying the universities should be leading, it might be smarter to look to collaborations with those that are responsible/accountable for each part from conversion to usable energy to end use of the energy. We would all gain more if the 'Ivory Tower' were to realize there are many in the practical world that have for generations been improving every stage from more efficient use, to more effective generation, with more applicable implementation of the principles that Mr. Porter seems to only trust to academia.
Mr. Porter would be more helpful if he were asking better questions than believing he had the 'answer' that all others should do. I'm a simple guy that has learned there are always better answers when the right questions are asked, and when there is only one answer allowed the unintended consequences from that answer will be far more harmful than all the good that answer is claimed to deliver.

Mon, 06/11/2018 - 3:17pm

Note misspelling of "Aquinas" in the chart above. Also note that the type of degree-granting institution has little correlation with effect on climate change. Some graduate schools may be very small and contained in one building; some community colleges have large expansive campuses in several locations. I totally agree with the opinion, however. If organizations claim to educate the leaders of tomorrow, they need to act like leaders today.

Mon, 06/11/2018 - 8:06pm

Thank you for your wise words.
I am concerned that our energy infrastructure may very well be as hole riddled as our roads.
Years of energy companies putting off necessary upkeep may put us in a difficult position going forward with what will inevitably be a various collection of energy sources.
Your collegiate call to energy arms could very well be the thing to avert a precarious energy future.