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Our home to share our thoughts and host an (e)discussion about the opportunities sustainability presents and how our world will be changing as a result. From savvy strategies for clients to our fleet of Schwinn 10-speeds and everything in between; we invite you to the conversation and hope that we can explore true.green. together.


Everyone who cares about the natural environment recycles, right? Paper, plastic, glass…but what about money? It can be almost just as easy to recycle energy investments to address the serious global issue of climate change if you set up a Green Revolving Fund (GRF).

What is a revolving loan fund?
A revolving loan fund is a dedicated funding mechanism used to support specific projects that payback project costs to such fund. Often using cost savings from funded projects, loans given are repaid into the revolving loan fund. Then the money repaid to the revolving fund is lent again to finance additional projects.

What is a green revolving fund?
A green revolving fund (GRF) is a revolving loan fund used to finance projects that have specific ties to energy conservation or efficiency, renewable energy, or other natural resource-saving projects. Specifically tracked savings from projects funded are returned to the green revolving fund to be used for future projects.

How do GRFs perform?
Colleges and universities with GRFs have reported a median return on investment of 28 percent over the life of a typical project (see Sustainable Endowments Institute’s (SEI) Greening the Bottom Line 2012). GRFs are often focused on projects with a payback window of no more than five or ten years. The investments make economic sense. Often the biggest hurdle is working out the mechanisms to allocate savings appropriately within the constructs of a university’s current budgeting and finance structures.

To start brainstorming for high payback projects, review McKinsey & Company’s Global GHG abatement cost curve beyond business-as-usual, in its report Pathways to a Low-Carbon Economy. This chart and report provide insight into the investments that reduce greenhouse gas emissions with the highest financial payback. Of course, most everyone knows that changing an incandescent light bulb to a LED often pays back its investment in less than a year, but this report will get you thinking beyond lighting. If the McKinsey & Company report is too academic for you, just start talking to your facilities and maintenance leaders. They know what needs to be replaced and upgraded. Starting from there, look at your options for more efficient technologies. More energy efficient options often cost more upfront, but that additional cost will often be more than recovered in energy savings over the life of the equipment, saving money and reducing emissions.

glf

Image included with permission from Sustainable Endowments Institute

 

Who is using GRFs?
The most common users of GRFs are colleges and universities. AASHE has a database of information about many of the institutions that have started GRFs. The Sustainable Endowments Institute (SEI) has coordinated The Billion Dollar Green Challenge to encourage colleges, universities and other nonprofits to investment a cumulative total of one billion dollars into green revolving funds. As of July 2016, SEI has $131 million committed from 62 participating institutions. See if your alma mater is on the list, or your child’s dream school. As of July 2016, the University of Vermont boasts the largest GRF, with a $13 million fund started in 2012. They look for projects that pay back within seven years and cost no more than $3 million per project. Harvard University’s well know $12 million fund, established in 2001, has supported nearly 200 projects which now cumulatively save the school over $4 million each year (yes, each year!) on energy bills.

Schools have found that a GRF is a reliable mechanism to support cost-saving capital improvements even in the midst of budget cuts and rising energy costs. GRFs regularly outperform the investment returns for schools’ endowments and thus some endowments have become involved with initial funding support to GRFs.

Are you at a small institution or one that doesn’t have access to millions of dollars? No problem. The range of sizes (both regarding enrolled students and school endowment size) among colleges and universities with successful GRFs suggests that any school could implement a GRF. SEI reported that initial capital investments in GRFs are evenly distributed in the ranges: below $100,000, between $100,000 and $1 million, and above $1 million. The fund I helped start began with only $50,000 and is added to annually from various sources. As a result of projects funded by this GRF and through a number of other small cost behavior-based changes on the campus, the energy bills are down, and the institution is saving more than $400,000 annually on energy costs compared to a business as usual scenario.

How is a GRF formed?
GRFs are formed in many ways. The most common sources of start-up funding are one-time administrative budget allocations, prior efficiency or utility savings, private donations or foundation grants, and endowment funds. Although administrative involvement and support for a GRF is key, students are frequently involved in creating the GRF at colleges and universities.

Verdis Group helped Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium (“Omaha’s Zoo”) set up a GRF, starting with seed capital from a grant and growing through utility lighting rebates, recycling-focused grants, direct contributions, and of course energy savings. One of the hurdles the Zoo’s Green Team faced was having money to fund even small sustainability projects, and this fund has almost entirely resolved this issue. Each year projects are selected that are both high payback projects, such as lighting updates, and low or no payback projects, such as adding recycling infrastructure to make recycling easier, faster and more complete. These GRF bundles use the high payback projects to support the projects that don’t financially payback on their own, and everyone is happy—the accountants who are saving money on energy bills, the Green Team who now has funds to make the changes they view as most important, and the environment which benefits from resource conservation and reduced pollution.

How is a GRF administered?
It is important to get your administration and tracking set up before jumping into a GRF. There are many administrative models among GRFs. On college campuses, the governance of the fund often depends upon how it was formed. Typically, a small group oversees the finances of the fund, while a larger, more diverse group reviews project loan applications on an ongoing basis. Funds typically require projects to have a maximum payback period to ensure timely replenishment of principal to the fund. Some funds charge interest while others simply require repayment of the principal. Interest allows the fund to grow organically over time; however growth can also come from additional external contributions or allocations from operating funds. Other funds require a percentage of real energy savings to be paid to the fund even after the principal amount of the loan is returned, allowing the fund to grow from the additional savings.

At Omaha’s Zoo, Verdis Group currently administers the GRF in partnership with the Zoo’s accounting group. The Zoo wanted its GRF to financially benefit its general operating budget and serve as a continuing funding source for green projects. Thus, savings in the Zoo’s GRF projects are allocated with a percentage to the Omaha Zoo’s general operating budget and the remainder to replenish the GRF. Since the creation of the Zoo’s fund, SEI has developed a GRF tracking system (GRITS 1.5) that helps institutions manage and analyze project-level energy, financial and carbon data without developing a new process or tool just for the GRF tracking. SEI’s experience with GRFs is exceptional and the GRITS tracking tool has made setting up and tracking a GRF even simpler.

What are common GRF goals?
A GRF can focus on energy efficiency goals, such as reducing energy expenses and cost savings (a.k.a., fighting climate change with the bonus of saving money). In other cases, the GRF may support innovation and engagement projects that do not have direct significant financial payback. In the latter example, a GRF is replenished by grants or other funding, rather than repayment of project savings. GRFs are often operated as hybrid funds that fund both high payback projects along side engagement projects with low or hard-to-measure payback.

At Omaha’s Zoo, a hybrid fund was formed because engaging the staff and providing funds to implement staff-generated green projects was important. Yet, ensuring the revolving nature of the fund endured was critical because an ongoing source of contributions beyond savings was not guaranteed. Verdis Group works with the Omaha Zoo annually to analyze potential projects, determine project paybacks, and guide the Omaha Zoo’s GRF selection committee toward a group of annual projects that meet financial payback, employee engagement, and environmental goals.

So get out there and start recycling something even more interesting than those old aluminum cans – recycle your energy investments!

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Nebraska’s businesses and economy face a great risk due to climate change, according to a new risk management study that assesses the impacts of climate change on jobs, crop yields, infrastructure, and energy production.

A bi-partisan group including former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Wall Street titan and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, and other prominent businesspeople and public officials launched the Risky Business Project that developed this study called “Risky Business.”

Our current economy and society have been organized and built around normal weather patterns with some resilience to occasional extreme weather events. Due to climate change, weather events that are today considered “extreme” will soon be considered “normal.” This increase in extreme weather poses risks to our current economy and societal structures.

Through a risk assessment, the study looks at the likelihood of possible future scenarios and the risks associated with each. If we continue with carbon emissions associated with business-as-usual, the risks for Nebraska by 2050 include 2x-3x more days over 95°F each year than currently and average summer temperatures increasing by 1°-3°F.

Nebraska is likely to see anywhere between 22 and 46 days over 95°F each year and average summer temperatures between 75-78.6°F by mid-century.

Nebraska is likely to see anywhere between 22 and 46 days over 95°F each year and average summer temperatures between 75-78.6°F by mid-century.

This rise in temperature could increase the demand for electricity, primarily from air conditioning, by 2.2 – 6.7%. With increased electricity demand across the region, Nebraskans could see energy expenditures increase by 2.0 – 10.6%. The heat will also reduce labor productivity by as much as 1%, primarily for outdoor workers in such industries as construction, utility maintenance, landscaping, and agriculture.

By mid-century, Nebraska farmers could see crop yields either slightly increasing by 1.5% or dropping as much as 24%. By 2080-2099, crop yields look even worse with a decrease between 10-57%.

From the defense industry, to insurance companies, to healthcare, several of Omaha’s largest industries are studying the impacts of climate change on their organization in order to manage risk. The report indicates we must take action immediately:

“If we act today to move onto a different path, we can still avoid many of the worst impacts of climate change, particularly those related to extreme heat. We are fully capable of managing climate risk, just as we manage risk in many other areas of our economy and national security—but only if we start to change our business and public policy decisions today.” –Risky Business

So what can we do?
The value of a risk analysis is to help prevent or minimize negative surprises and unearth new opportunities. With climate change, there are two necessary approaches to minimizing risk: mitigation and adaptation.

Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases stay in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. What we emit today will impact our climate for at least another 100 years. To mitigate risks associated with future climate change, we must reduce or eliminate emissions today.

Organizations in Omaha have begun to take steps to reduce emissions. OPPD has taken a bold step by outlining its plan to reduce electricity demand while simultaneously increasing renewable energy generation, both of which reduce greenhouse gases.

And we have clients that are taking major steps forward as well. The University of Nebraska at Omaha is working on a Sustainability Master Plan that will outline steps the university can take to reduce emissions and improve its bottom line. Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium has already cut energy use per square foot by 7%, while saving over $100,000 each year, and the Omaha Public Schools have cut emissions over 42,000 metric tons and saved $2 million in the last four years. Just to name a few.

Adaptation is also necessary, because the impacts of climate change are already being felt from coast to coast.

Many businesses are developing adaptation plans that include both addressing new challenges as well as discovering opportunities they didn’t know existed. Farmers continue to shift to sustainable agricultural practices and use technology to adapt to changing weather. Irrigation research and technology continues to enable farmers to use less water while maintaining or improving yields, and the Land Institute cultivates perennial crops. Each of these practices saves farmers money while improving resilience to the risks of climate change.

For more systemic change, the report authors say “it is time for all American business leaders and investors to get in the game and rise to the challenge of addressing climate change.” This includes investors incorporating risk assessment into capital expenditures and balance sheets, and the public sector instituting policies to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Ultimately, this is a problem of today, not some far off generation. Every decision we make today will either increase the likelihood of negative climate impacts or will help us manage the risk so we can thrive in Nebraska.

How does your organization plan to mitigate and adapt to climate change impacts?

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I’ve had Andy Williams on the brain all week. OK – that’s a little weird. Let me clarify: I’ve been humming the tune, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”. Not because the kids are jingle-belling or there are marshmallows for roasting. It’s better. It’s Earth Week!

This week is when we celebrate all the great accomplishments that are creating a cleaner, greener and healthier earth.  For us, that means we live a bit vicariously through our clients, which has been a pretty exceptional experience this year.

Rather than offering a lengthy list of all the great events, awards, and recognition, I’ll hit the highlights.

Omaha Public Schools: Green Ribbon Award Winning District
On Earth Day (April 22), the U.S. Department of Education named OPS as a Green Ribbon Award winner. They were one of only nine schools school districts to earn the award this year. That’s a huge deal! Congratulations are in order for Superintendent Mark Evans and the rest of the team at OPS. This is a well-deserved honor for the district’s efforts.

In addition to the district award, Fontenelle Elementary  joined Miller Park Elementary, Lothrop Science & Technology Magnet (elementary), and King Science & Technology Magnet (middle) as recipients of Green Ribbon Awards.

University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Earth Week Activities
Our newest client hosted several events throughout the week. The new Center for Urban Sustainability held its first annual Launchpad on Earth Day. The Center, which was approved in October of 2012, is just gaining momentum with several projects underway and in the queue. On Friday, Mayor Jean Stothert joined several UNO staff to celebrate Arbor Day by planting a tree and acknowledging UNO’s Tree Campus USA designation. There were several other activities on campus throughout the week; read about them all here.

UNO is currently seeking community input on the Sustainability Master Plan that we are helping them develop. If you have a brief moment (3–5 minutes) and would like to share your thoughts, take the survey here, please and thank you.

Daniel Lawse leading a retreat discussion at UNO's Glacier Creek Perserve while I work diligently to capture the insightful thoughts of the attendees.

Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium Recognized by the Omaha World Herald
Also on Tuesday, the Omaha World Herald ran a great story that summarized recent efforts by the country’s best zoo.  Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium does amazing conservation work across the globe, and now the Zoo has really embraced sustainability on their campus as well.

The best quote from the article came from the Zoo’s CEO and director, Dennis Pate, who said, “It has involved a cultural shift for everyone. We had to change our way of thinking. The staff jumped in wholeheartedly.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Earth Week Activities at the Nebraska Medical Center’s Campus
The University of Nebraska Medical Center and The Nebraska Medical Center teamed up to create a great week of programs as well. There was a Lunch & Learn that educated attendees about the Zoo’s efforts, and a super-cool Do-It-Yourself Challenge wherein people submitted pictures of reuse projects (the winner turns colorful surgical caps into quilts for pediatric patients). Thursday brought an electronics recycling + confidential paper shredding event, and the week culminated on Friday with an Arbor Day tree planting ceremony and Tree Campus USA celebration.

Kearney Public Schools Tree Planting
Not to be outdone, students at Buffalo Hills Elementary in Kearney Public Schools helped plant 250 trees. That’s about 240 more than UNO and UNMC combined! Check out the story here. KPS also just rolled out their Sustainability Master Plan (led by us), and they’re really ramping up their efforts to contend for Green Ribbon Awards next year.

It’s the hap…happiest season of all!

Onward and upward.

 

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We’re going to be surrounded by animals quite often this year, and we couldn’t be more excited. Thanks in part to the generosity of the Peter Kiewit Foundation, we are proud to announce that we are working with the state of Nebraska’s top tourist destination, Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo. Over the course of 2012, we will be partnering with the Zoo to create their energy and sustainability master plan, integrating a few of our engagement tools to foster a few sustainable behavior changes, and facilitating the implementation of the new strategies.

It goes without saying that this project will present some unique opportunities. The Zoo sits on a 250+ acre campus, sees well over one million visitors every year, and is the tourist gem of the city of Omaha. And, oh, there are animals there. Many animals of all shapes and sizes. What a treat it’s been already to get to know the Zoo’s leadership team and staff. They are firmly committed to conservation, which makes perfect sense; their conservation-oriented mission is such a great foundation for the work that’s ahead.

We’re extremely pleased to have such a great opportunity to impact so many people…and animals. Now we just need to ensure we avoid the lions and tigers and bears…oh my.

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