Boondoggle: Students forced to pay $40,000 for solar umbrellas

Robby Soave Reporter
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A student group at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs has approved spending student money on fancy solar umbrellas that will have an unknown impact on the campus’s energy output and cost $10,000 a piece.

The approval came after a student proposed purchasing the umbrellas. The Student Government Association has allocated funds to purchase four of the contraptions — all on students’ dime.

Matthew Driftmier, who is both a senator for the Student Government Association (SGA) and a member of the Green Action Fund (GAF), submitted the proposal. GAF’s budget comes from a mandatory $5 fee that all UCCS students pay each semester, and the umbrella plan represents 40 percent of that budget, according to Campus Reform.

The umbrellas themselves are manufactured by EnerFusion, a green technology company founded in Michigan in 2006. EnerFusion has sold its products to environmentally conscious universities across the country, including the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of Texas A&M and the University of Florida. The devices are essentially wireless outdoor electrical hubs — powered by solar energy — that allow students to plug in their laptops.

Though billed as green technology, the umbrellas would likely have a negligible impact on the university’s energy savings. Driftmier did not respond to a request for comment, but admitted as much to the UCCS student newspaper.

“This isn’t going to be cutting the UC’s energy bills in half by a long shot,” he said in a statement to The Scribe. “The energy saved will be more negligible.”

The project is about creating awareness, rather than reducing energy costs, he said.

“The real impact we’re looking to get out of these tables is more awareness,” he said. “Here’s solar panels, here’s real interactions you can have with solar energy, these are the kind of things you can do with it.”

GAF’s power to collect student fees stems from a 2008 campus ballot initiative that obligated students to pay $10 per year to fund solar energy projects. In 2011, another initiative expanded the fund to cover a wider range of sustainable efforts.

GAF’s website brags that it fosters both environmental consciousness and democracy, since students vote on which proposals to fund.

“The Green Action Fund is really the only committee or fee that students pay where students actually have a voice in how that money is used on a regular basis,” said Nathanael Mooberry, former member of GAF, in a video on its website.

The only students who vote, however, are the ones serving on the committee itself — many of whom are appointed by various environmental clubs.

Though the initial ballot measure creating the $5 fee passed with 76 percent of the vote, few of the students who voted in that election are still on campus 5 years later.

One student who remains skeptical of the solar umbrella project told Campus Reform that the Green Fund was making a “foolish investment.”

“Forty-one thousand dollars for four picnic tables–that go out of commission in the winter–hardly seems worth the negligible energy savings and proposed sustainability awareness,” Tyler Whittemore, a senior majoring in strategic and organizational communication, told Campus Reform on Tuesday.

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