Senate commission offers sustainability audits

Story by Eric Christenson

As students make the shift to off-campus housing, they have a lot on their minds: Paying bills and rent, remembering bus routes, buying groceries, dealing with roommates, etc. and all the while trying to keep up with school, work and other extracurriculars.

And most often, students are only living in their off-campus home for a year or two, so there’s no strong reason for them to necessarily care enough about how energy efficient their home is.  They’ll move away within a year or two before they can actually see the long-term effects and advantages of making their house more green.

In addition, typically, the property owners don’t have to pay energy bills, so there’s no desire from either the owner nor the renter to the take the time and effort to make the space sustainable.

This is called a split incentive and it’s what the Student Office of Sustainability is going to try to tackle with a new program called Student and Community Outreach on Rental Efficiency, or $CORE.

“You have that split where no one is really incentivized to do this to their property,” said Tyrel Zich, who is an SOS intern directly responsible for the $CORE program. “Basically, the program bridges that gap and provides the materials and education and can build this relationship between the landlords and students in the process of renting homes.”

He said the program will send ‘energy educators’ to students’ homes to teach them about energy efficiency and sustainability while also providing the students with about $60 of materials such as fluorescent lightbulbs, window film, weather stripping, sink aerators and low-flow shower heads that will save renters around $160 in energy costs per year.

Director of Student Office of Sustainability, Ben Ponkratz said the idea to implement the $CORE program here in Eau Claire came about when he attended the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education Conference two years ago at the University of Colorado-Boulder.

AASHE is an organization that promotes educating students and faculty at different colleges about sustainable practices.  They hold an annual conference every October and students like Ponkratz, from across the nation attend and learn about different energy efficiency techniques that can be implemented at their own universities.

It was there that Ponkratz learned about something similar to $CORE happening at CU-Boulder and thought it could translate well to Eau Claire students.

“They’re students; they don’t have the money and they don’t live there long enough to care about energy efficiency,” Ponkratz said.  “What you end up with is really crappy energy efficiency off-campus.”

Zich said this is one of the first things Ponkratz brought up once Zich was hired as an intern for SOS last semester.  Then, this summer, Zich worked as an intern for Xcel Energy and when he mentioned the $CORE program to his boss, he said Xcel was eager to get on board.

The program is preliminarily funded by the university’s Green Fund that the SOS manages.  However, Xcel Energy will reimburse the Green Fund in full for the costs of distributing the materials used in the $CORE audits and paying the energy educators.  So students that sign up to have an audit get the service and the new sustainable materials for free.

The SOS plans to do 100 audits next semester and already has 25 homes signed up online.

“There’s different programs that already exist for this type of stuff, but what’s special about $CORE is that we’re actually going to provide you with the tools and the equipment that you need in order to reduce that energy,” Ponkratz said.

If that isn’t enough to cure the split incentive problem, if half of the roommates living in the home are around for the audit, the students will get a free Jim’s pizza.

“We know who our target audience is,” Ponkratz said.  “There’s absolutely no catch.”

Ponkratz said the program is set to launch in February.

Online sign up for $CORE auditing can be found on the SOS website at and there will be a sign up sheet in the Student Senate office in Davies Center.