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Colleges and Universities Finally Earn Back Carbon Cash

Capital project funds don't equal millions paid in offsets, but they help.

By Katie Hyslop 26 Jul 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues for The Tyee Solutions Society. Follow her on Twitter @kehyslop.

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UBC paid $1.5 million in carbon offsets last year, and with the government's Carbon Neutral Capital Program, is starting to see some of that invested back into the university. Photo by adpowers, Creative Commons licensed.

Close to $4 million in funding for carbon-reducing infrastructure doesn't sound like a lot of money when split between 20 projects for 18 public universities and colleges.

But the provincial government's extension of the Carbon Neutral Capital Program to public post-secondary institutions is a welcome relief for schools that have been paying into the carbon offset pool since 2010 without seeing a dollar in return.

In March, the province announced public hospitals and post-secondary institutions could now apply for funding grants for energy-reducing infrastructure, with money coming directly from the offset pool these institutions have been paying into at $25/tonne of greenhouse gas emissions for the last four years.

The University of Victoria received $532,500 from the capital program for a geothermal project to heat and cool its new Centre for Athletics, Recreation and Special Abilities. That's significantly higher than the $332,000 it paid in carbon offsets for 2013, but lower than the roughly $700,000 it asked for. Now the university will have to cover the additional project costs using internal funds. But it's not complaining.

"We are actually quite pleased with the changes the government made this year [to the Carbon Neutral Capital Program]," said Kristi Simpson, the university's associate vice-president of financial planning and operations.

"We used to pay the [carbon] tax and then the funding was distributed to other entities in the province. [The change] allows the money to be re-invested into the post-secondary sector."

'Every dollar' to be returned: ministry

Public kindergarten to Grade 12 schools have received capital funding grants from a $5-million annual pool of funding from the program since it was announced in 2012. In total, the Carbon Neutral Capital Program has a $14.5-million annual pool to split among the three sectors with $5.7 million in grants available to hospitals.

The environment ministry told The Tyee Solutions Society via email the funds are slightly higher than the total offsets paid by each sector for 2013, which were $4,203,350 from the school districts; $3,405,875 from post-secondary institutions (which received $3.8 million in capital grants); and $5,796,975 from the hospitals. The numbers are only slightly lower than offsets in 2012.

However, not every institution that paid offsets received a capital grant this year. In an emailed statement from the education ministry, a spokesperson said while the level of funding for those who do receive it varies from year to year, "over several years, every dollar a school district spends purchasing carbon offsets will return to the district through the [Carbon Neutral Capital Program]."

For post-secondary institutions like the University of Victoria, this change marks the first time since carbon offsets became mandatory in 2009 that they received funding for energy-reducing capital projects from government.

But the University of British Columbia, which received close to $720,000 to retrofit and upgrade laboratory exhaust systems on both its campuses this year, also received funding from the province's Public Sector Energy Conservation Agreement for a bioenergy research and development plant in 2009.

The conservation agreement created in 2007 was a $75-million funding pot spread over three years and available to public sector organizations and institutions to help the government achieve 33 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

Thanks in part to its bioenergy plant and other sustainability initiatives, UBC has already achieved a 14 per cent reduction in emissions over 2007 levels, and with this new grant for lab retrofits, it's on its way to making it a 33 per cent reduction by 2015.

UBC's Carbon Neutral Capital Project funding is only 80 per cent of the total cost for retrofitting and upgrading lab exhaust fans in the university's life sciences and earth sciences buildings, and it isn't even half of the $1.5 million the university paid in carbon offsets last year.

The project will however reduce the Point Grey campus' energy consumption of about 300 gigawatt hours per year by 4.5 gigawatt hours, says Orion Henderson, director of sustainability and engineering at the campus.

"We've certainly got a strong businesses case for affording [the retrofit project]," he said. "We've got about $270,000 a year in savings from the project."

Competition for grant

Some institutions like the College of New Caledonia in Prince George got exactly what they asked for. The college applied for $30,000 in funding for carbon dioxide detectors to help the John A. Brink Trades and Technology Centre determine the number of occupants in the building and adjust the heating and cooling levels appropriately. The college didn't have the amount it paid in carbon offsets in 2013 by press time, but a spokesperson said the new capital project would help reduce both emissions and costs for the institution.

In his 2013 audit of the province's carbon tax, B.C.'s then-auditor general John Doyle criticized the government and the tax for failing to achieve a reduction in carbon emissions. He documented a six per cent increase in public sector emissions from 2010 to 2011, including a six per cent rise in post-secondary institution emissions.

The Carbon Neutral Capital Project had not yet been introduced during the time period examined by Doyle's report, but since its inception it has put over $10 million into energy-reducing capital projects, which the province claims has reduced greenhouse gas emissions from public schools by over 3,000 tonnes, saving them $75,000 in carbon offsets and $800,000 in operations costs.

Like the grants issued to school districts, Simpson said government has given institutions no guarantee they will receive as much funding next year for capital projects as they did this year -- especially if more of the province's 25 public post-secondary institutions apply for the grant next year.

"My understanding is the government's goal over time is to make sure that people are [cost] neutral. I'm not sure how they'll manage that," she said.

Of course, the University of Victoria would have preferred to receive capital funding starting the first year they had to pay for carbon offsets.

"Our preference would have been that that money, as it is now, would have been directed back to the post-secondary institutions," she said. "But we're pleased now that it's been changed."  [Tyee]

Read more: Education, Environment

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