Mission: “To advise Penn State on how to use its purchasing power to foster sustainability by supporting businesses that produce sustainable goods in a socially responsible manner.”

Green Fee

The SSAC has looked into allocating a portion of the student activities fee or facilities fee to go towards green projects a number of times in the past.  However, this semester presents a perfect time to pursue this idea due to the recently created Student Fee Board which oversees both the student activities fee and the facilities fee.  The SSAC will begin meeting with the Student Fee Board in the spring 2017 semester to discuss allocation of some of the fee towards green initiatives.

Many sustainable projects on campus face issues with funding, but what if we can find a way to reduce this problem by introducing a green fee which essentially takes a small amount of the student activity fee and devotes it towards sustainable projects?  Projects like the Bike share program will be able to get funded easily.  Projects that involve two different departments such as the Food and Dining Services and the Housing Services often face issues including the two departments debating who will fund such projects.  Instead, they can essentially take help of this fee to fund a proposed project and make it a successful one.  The green fee will also be able to fund projects that the 14 sustainability related clubs on campus want to pursue but cannot due to funding.  If such projects funded by the green fee as part of the overall student fee result in future returns, such as an energy savings project with an upfront cost but future benefits, the cost benefits will be transferred back to students in the form of lower student fees or more Student Fee Board projects.

Such a fee has already been implemented at multiple big universities such as the University of Texas, Austin.  With this fee the number of sustainable projects which can be pursued by students and departments alike are immense.  We seek to establish a good vetting process, wherein a partnership between the Sustainability Institute and the SSAC we will be able to vet ideas and pass project recommendations to the new Student Fee Board.  This way we can insure that the projects being funded have a meaningful sustainable impact to the Penn State community.  Such a model, if successful at University Park, can essentially be mirrored in the other branch campuses – hence helping Penn State to be more sustainable as a whole.

Solar Dual Land Use

solarPenn State is planning to construct a roughly 2MW solar installation near Nittany Medical Center on land currently used as cattle pasture.  The potential of this land to remain pasture land need not cease if its primary purpose becomes the solar array.  The SSAC recommends that within the solar lease or applicable agreement between Penn State and the developer, to preserve the right to the land beneath ground mounted solar panels for the future use of Penn State entities to perform research including auxiliary agriculture use, erosion studies, stormwater studies.

The benefit of dual land use in a solar installations that the “highest best use” of the land is achieved – potential benefits are maximized and not lost.  Lower maintenance costs can be attained if animals like sheep graze the vegetation under the panels.  The payback period of the project site can be reduced if a marketable product can be developed on the land alongside the panels.  Lastly, the land can serve as several potential research outlets:

  • Co-location studies
  • Erosion and/or stormwater studies
  • Agricultural Extension report/case studies for benefit of Pennsylvania farmers and landowners

The SSAC recommends that within the solar lease or applicable agreement between Penn State and the developer, to preserve the right to the land beneath ground mounted solar panels for the future use of Penn State entities to perform research including auxiliary agriculture use, erosion studies, and stormwater studies.


 Energy Ambassadors

The SSAC and Steam Services (a unit of OPP) recognize the lack of manpower available to support the ever-increasing interest in and requests for tours of the campus steam plants.  Members of the SSAC have met with Steam Services several times to discuss the establishment of an Energy Ambassadors program – a program in which students are trained to give tours of the energy facilities of Penn State, including the steam plants.

This program would be advantageous following reasons:

  • Students would be teaching other students
  • Tours would teach methods of infrastructural energy production and pollution reduction
  • The program creates an elite, educated group that is focused on Penn State’s energy usage

This program would also fall in line with President Barron’s vision of Penn State as a national leader in energy production and innovation.

The SSAC’s most recent development relating to Energy Ambassadors is the recommendation of the establishment of a task force to garner support and begin implementing an Energy Ambassadors program.  This task force would consider the ideas that were developed by SSAC and Steam Services:

  • Partner with an internship or research program to train students to give the tours
  • OPP or Sustainability Institute to host the program
  • Tours for Penn State students, faculty, staff, and the general public


Socially Responsible Investing

Fall 2016 Update:

Divestment updates from other universities:

  • University of Maryland: Divested in May 2010
  • Harvard University and Northwestern University: Signed on to UN Principles for Responsible Investing
  • Many other schools: Advisory Committees for Socially Responsible Investment

The SSAC has determined that there is a need for education and deeper exploration of the potential for SRI at Penn State.  Therefore, the SSAC is recommending that the university support the effort to bring in an educational panel featuring professionals with expertise and experience related to SRI.  This panel could include and/or be co-hosted by the Sustainability Institute, Smeal, SSAC, Fossil Free, and University Administration.  Therefore we are asking the administration to provide funding and commit to attending an educational panel to discuss SRI and continue to build common knowledge on the topic.

Original Recommendation:

The SSAC recognizes that as a highly influential institution, Penn State has significant political influence, and therefore, the administrative and financial decisions that our university makes have effects that span beyond University Park. This notion is especially important as it applies to Penn State’s investments. Over the past few semesters, the SSAC has been delivering and evolving recommendations related to Socially Responsible Investing, with the goal of encouraging Penn State and the Board of Trustees to consider how their financial decisions may be applied to supporting positive social, environmental, and economic change, while simultaneously delivering returns on investment that are comparable or superior to those of a traditional or standard investment portfolio.

The U.S. Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment defines Socially Responsible Investing (SRI), also referred to as Sustainable, Responsible, and Impact Investing, as “an investment discipline that considers environmental, social and corporate governance criteria (ESG) to generate long-term competitive financial returns and positive societal impact.” This approach to investment management could involve investing in positive ventures like community development funds or clean technology, or divesting from negative industries like coal and tar sand extraction, and hinges on the knowledge that investments chosen based on their incorporation of ESG criteria often also lend themselves to equally competitive financial returns. As USSIF puts it, “The evidence is clear that sustainable and responsible investors do not have to pay more to align their investments with their values, or to avoid companies with poor environmental, social, or governance practices.”  For a list of studies detailing documented successes of SRI, click here:

In Fall 2015, the SSAC recommended that SRI be looked into as a new basis for investing as Penn State. To do this, we suggested a team be created within the Office of Investment Management to investigate the possibility of prioritizing socially responsible investments with returns equal to or greater than those achieved through our current portfolio, as well as the feasibility of replacing/reallocating socially irresponsible investments. Since this recommendation was delivered, the Office of Investment Management has reported that they have begun the process of analyzing options for future investments to be invested by ‘socially responsible investors/fund managers.’ The SSAC plans to continue developing this recommendation and working with administrators in the coming academic year to integrate SRI practices into Penn State’s investment strategies.

The graph below shows the cumulative returns of the S&P 500 index alongside the FFIUS index, or Fossil Free Indexes for the U.S., demonstrating that equal or better financial performance is possible with SRI.  Another study was done that compared the S&P 500 index to the FTSE KLD 400 Social Index, an index created in 1990 to help socially conscious investors in their investment decisions, and found that from 1990 to 2009, the FTSE KLD 400 Social Index yielded annual returns of 9.51%, while the S&P 500 yielded annual returns of 8.66% in the same period.




The SSAC is recommending that the university continue to support the Bikeshare initiative being developed and implemented by Transportation Services.  In the upcoming months and/or years, we ask that funds be released to Transportation Services as planned, so that the projects can move forward.  This is a project supported not only by members of SSAC, but by the UPUA, GPSA, CCSG, ARHS, and many other students across campus.  SSAC members have worked with other student leaders and Transportation Services directors on the Student Transportation Committee to develop ideas for the Bikeshare Program, and are excited to see its implementation in the coming years.

Sustainable Purchasing

The energy and environmental engineering industries is ever-increasingly recognizing the need for comprehensive emissions accounting that accurately assess the environmental impact of the products, processes, and institutions that we use as a society.  Penn State OPP has teamed up with the Penn State Institute of Natural Gas Research and the Sustainability Institute to better account for Penn State’s direct (Scope 1) and indirect (Scope 2 and 3) emissions.  Many departments purchase their materials and supplies with consideration for environmental impact, but currently, the price is the only required driver for purchasing decisions.  Nothing appears on the RFP process that mandates consideration of the environmental impact of purchasing decisions.

This is in part due to the lack of industry standard and lack of widespread adoption of existing accounting methods, which include:

  • Life Cycle Analysis (LCA)
  • Environmental Product Declaration (EPD)
  • Safer Choice
  • Energy Star

The SSAC has recommended the addition of a sustainability metric to purchasing/procurement RFPs.  This metric can incorporate an existing accounting method, listed above, or if the company does not have a metric, Penn State would ask vendors/suppliers to submit an alternate add-on with their bids/proposals that offers a way to measure the sustainability of their product/service.

The SSAC also recommends that Penn State researches and develops an accounting method to set a list of environmental priorities with a method for normalizing each variable to a common metric.  This normalizing method for Penn State can be adopted from existing ISO and LCA standards and methods.  An example is shown below:


The establishment of a sustainable purchasing metric would better track the environmental impact of purchases, which will more accurately track emissions reductions goals and make carbon taxing Penn State’s purchases possible in the future.

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