Editor's note: This story is part of PolicyMic's Millennials Take On Climate Change series this week.
Money is the language of politicians and businessmen, and, it seems in this new age of Big College, the language of educators as well. As a member of the UGA Beyond Coal Campaign, I’ve witnessed a group of passionate student activists harness the power of grassroots organizing firsthand, in the form of over 5,000 student petition signatures and 100 faculty endorsements calling for the University of Georgia to replace its coal-fired boiler with cleaner alternatives.
The only problem? University administrators can’t monetize petition signatures.
Since 2011, I’ve worked both with the campaign and through the Student Government Association and the UGA Office of Sustainability to progress my university's movement towards cleaner energy. Today, I sit on a university committee tasked with replacing the coal boiler with cleaner, cheaper sources of energy, a task that no one takes that for granted. Our campaign has been successful so far because we as a team understand that clean energy is a fantastic business opportunity.
Administrators don’t want to hear that climate change will displace millions of people in coming years or that mountain-top removal destroys lives in Appalachia. Ears perk up, however, at talk of investments in new lighting fixtures with a two year payback, or solar panels which can help increase the university endowment. We’ve taken this approach to help pass several student government resolutions calling for cleaner energy on campus.
I personally have used the same approach in writing news articles calling out UGA’s missed opportunities to save money and promote smart energy use. I’ve been interviewed about so-called green bonds, and I’ve written a paper with other student researchers on how UGA can decrease its energy use by 25% and carbon emissions by 20% all with a less than 10 year payback.
Fighting climate change has made me appreciate understanding both sides of a business transaction. On one side lies a generation of millennials fighting to address a catastrophic climate cliff. On the other, a group of powerful decision makers whose entire lives have been based around an energy industry that doesn’t pay for its yearly billion dollar damages to our health, our nation’s economy, and the environment.
The beauty of the marketplace, however, is its ability to match parties of differing views with the opportunity to produce huge gains, both financially and ethically.
The process of learning about clean energy business opportunities has taught me more about finance and operating in the business world than I ever thought possible. The knowledge I’ve gained has inspired me to put my money where my mouth is and invest heavily in clean energy companies. My experience in marketing clean energy to university administrators also lead me to spend my summer in San Francisco interning for the CEO of a major renewable algal oils company called Solazyme.
I hope to follow my activist roots into the world of finance, where a green Renaissance is taking place. Creative financing companies like Mosaic are using twenty-first century ingenuity to crowdfund solar power projects nationwide. Even Warren Buffett, America’s most prominent investor, backed solar energy through a $2 billion deal with SunPower Corp. earlier this year.
In a time of increasing regulation, dwindling small business and growing corporate influence, it’s important for millennials to realize we are now responsible for maintaining the idea of free enterprise. From a coal boiler in Georgia to a pipeline in Canada, the opportunities to replace dirty fuels through smart business are limitless. I am confident our scrappy generation will seize them before our time is up.
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