In wake of Ross departure, sustainability must remain a UNC goal

This week, while University of North Carolina students, faculty and staff gather for the Mid-Year Appalachian Energy Summit, the future of the school system’s sustainability efforts hangs in the balance.

With President Tom Ross’ abrupt and unexplained dismissal by the Board of Governors, the UNC system risks losing a commitment to accountability, democracy and academics, as well as a dedication to long-term sustainability efforts.

The energy summit’s stated goals are to reduce energy expenditures, stimulate the state’s economy by investing in the new energy economy and position the school system as a national leader in sustainability education and reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. To ensure those things happen, Ross must commit to working in his final year toward a strong 100 percent renewable energy goal for UNC schools and develop a plan and timeline to help bring it to fruition after his tenure.

I am a 2013 graduate of UNC Charlotte. I grew up in Lake Norman and decided to stay in state for college because of my love for this place. As a senior, I met with Ross, who was open to student input about securing renewable energy for the UNC system. He was very receptive to the need for clean energy and sustainability for our schools. I left the meeting feeling hopeful, but to make true progress means Ross’ setting forth a clear plan and timeline for achieving 100 percent renewable energy.

As we work to tackle climate change – one of the most significant issues of our time – our schools must be bold in identifying solutions.

By transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy, UNC would save money, offer new educational opportunities on the benefits of clean energy and prepare students for the jobs of tomorrow. Already the U.S. solar industry employs 173,000 workers – more than double the number of coal miners in our country.

As utility rates continue to rise across North Carolina, solar continues to get cheaper. Affordable energy sources would allow UNC to increase its investments in technology, facilities and student resources.

Throughout his tenure, Ross has helped the UNC system cut its energy consumption, saving our schools millions of dollars. He has voiced support for continued sustainability efforts for the UNC system, including a goal of exploring additional renewable energy for our 17 campuses. A firm commitment to powering with 100 percent renewable energy would cement Ross’ legacy as a leader on this issue and set up UNC for continued progress when he departs next year. It would also help fulfill the energy summit’s stated goals.

When a new president takes over at UNC, there will be choices as to which direction to take the schools’ sustainability efforts. In identifying a successor, the Board of Governors should choose someone willing to continue to carry the baton forward, not set us back decades. Over the next year, Ross can help ensure that happens by putting forth a vision on renewable energy that people will rally around.

As the benefits of renewable energy are realized and support grows even stronger on campus, it will be tough for the the Board of Governors to disregard the most important voices within the school system – those studying, teaching and working in it.

Jordan Woods of Charlotte is a Greenpeace organizer.