Prioritization of Sustainability Projects at Cornell

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A Report for Cornell University Energy and Sustainability


Sustainability at Cornell University is a complex process with many interested parties and stakeholders. A number of projects are in the pipeline for implementation on campus, and Cornell University Energy and Sustainability (E&S), a department with the obligation and opportunity to provide reliable, cost-effective, sustainable energy and water to campus, to develop a financial model with which to evaluate the projects. By conducting primary and secondary research, observed systems and developed a method with which to evaluate projects, as well as developed a set of recommendations to help Cornell reach its 2035 Carbon Neutrality goal. After discussions with experts in infrastructure and environmental finance, and consultations with our client, E&S, the team decided to base our model on the Net Present Value Plus (NPV+) method that incorporates actual cash flows and value considerations, which are important to the University but may not have a direct cash flow, such as carbon emissions. Based on our research of sustainable infrastructure financing, cost/benefit models, and interviews with experts on sustainability, including members of the Senior Leaders Campus Action Group (SLCAG), we developed a set of recommendations that we believe will help Cornell reach its 2035 Carbon Neutrality goal. Our interviews with Cornell faculty and staff who are members of or were recommended by SLCAG were very illuminating regarding the attitudes and perceptions about sustainability among members of the Cornell community. Based on these interviews, we arrived at four major findings:

  1. Sustainability is not the top consideration for many projects at Cornell; it is one of many factors considered, including function, aesthetics and design
  2. A high level of bureaucracy exists within the University, with many decision-makers and influencers; this necessitates extensive buy-in for approval of projects
  3. The best buy-in will occur from a multi-disciplinary assessment of proposed projects
  4. Colleges control most budgets and spending, but have little incentive to spend on projects which reduce energy consumption because projects are currently evaluated using a method (payback period) in which not all relevant costs are considered To address these findings, we came up with five primary recommendations for Cornell E&S and the Cornell Administration:
  5. Increase focus on the “quadruple bottom line” Continue to align academic purpose with sustainability to facilitate learning and empowerment. Submit proposals for sustainability-oriented projects through Engaged Cornell.
  6. Create a roadmap to carbon neutrality by 2035 that is endorsed by the president of the University The NPV+ model we created can be used by E&S to evaluate projects and prioritize them on a roadmap so that budgets can be set and resources directed toward achieving carbon neutrality by 2035. Sustainable design can be further supported through the Development Office in soliciting donors favoring sustainability.
  7. Align financial incentives to encourage sustainability projects in colleges across Cornell University Colleges need to reflect sustainability in their operational budgets, which the university can incentivize.
  8. Increase financial training for administrators Understanding the time value of money is critical to making smart budget decisions, and using the NPV+ model we designed rather than the payback period method of evaluation currently used will enable administrators to account for gains and losses across numerous indicators over the lifespans of projects.
  9. Enhance sustainability leadership from Senior Administrators, Trustees and Donors The University needs to create an expectation that units include long-term maintenance costs in annual budgets to reflect actual lifespans of materials and resource consumption. Sustainability needs to be reflected as a true priority of University leaders in order to be sufficiently factored into decision-making and budgets across Colleges and University units.

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Cornell University Energy and Sustainability

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energy; sustainability; college campus


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Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International



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