Small and mid-sized colleges underestimate their power to accelerate campus projects

by Joseph K. Clark

The COVID-19 pandemic put campus modernization into limbo. The rise of hybrid learning, mounting deferred maintenance costs, and widening operational gaps are reasons for uncertainty in campus master plans. But with disruption comes an opportunity for positive transformation, and small and mid-sized public colleges stand to gain the most from embracing this moment of change.

As a new semester approaches, it’s time for higher education to hit reset on their infrastructure transformation as opportunities for electrification and decarbonization are coming into the spotlight. From improving electrical resiliency to meet standards for research to expanding IT power and cooling systems for online learning, energy projects are the often-underestimated key to long-term growth. The Biden Administration’s push for sustainability is another driving force behind the increased attention on public universities’ energy efficiency, cleantech, and renewables projects. While the opportunities and technologies are within reach, small and mid-sized colleges face unique barriers.

In March 2021, one year following the onset of the pandemic, Schneider Electric partnered with University Business to survey over 127 higher education leaders in finance and operations on how their institutions approached campus modernization projects in the new normal. Our report uncovered what factors stood between colleges and large-scale campus innovation and new business models for overcoming them.


Reaching critical mass with energy infrastructure improvement

The trifecta of aging infrastructure, deferred maintenance, and competing priorities remain bottlenecks to advancing energy projects. The backlog bottleneck extends beyond two years for small and mid-sized institutions, making it difficult to plan and budget for other infrastructure investments accurately.

At the same time, our survey finds that small and mid-sized colleges rely more heavily on potential stimulus than large institutions (27% compared to 19%), which could lead to further project delays should allocations fall short of expectations. How do you capture opportunities for growth and innovation while improving institutional resiliency?

For so many schools, the disruptions caused by COVID piled onto the long list of competing priorities, both for financial resources and staff time. The pandemic also highlighted operational gaps that put further strain and uncertainty on plans to upgrade energy infrastructure. Between our pre-COVID survey and our most recent survey in 2021, outdated tools and technologies saw the most significant jump in respondents, from 49% to 69%, reporting it as a concern. Workforce turnover and wages were a top concern cited by 73% of respondents.

Using partnerships as a catalyst to scale up modernization

As energy systems grow in scope and complexity and with resources slim, more institutions are exploring new partnerships for financing, construction, operations, and maintenance. Financial enablement models offer a new formula for sustainable growth, leveraging outside capital and operational expertise to supplement resource constraints, and 48% of respondents to our survey say their institution is planning to use one or more of these models for their energy projects.

For example, Energy Savings Performance Contracting (ESPC) can move the needle on deferred maintenance by leveraging energy cost savings from efficiency projects to fund campus-wide facility upgrades. Energy-as-a-Service (EaaS) offers another way to secure large amounts of funding for capital improvement projects. These energy service agreements can meet a wide range of operational and financial requirements, from savings to system uptime to GHG reduction, with a private operator assuming the total cost of ownership and the responsibility to operate and maintain the systems over time. Download our white paper to dive deeper into the research cited in this article and learn more about financial enablement strategies that can help scale up modernization faster.

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