Picture a university official sitting at his desk. He is graying, his face lined, his desk is piled with papers requiring attention. He squints at the person sitting opposite him.

That person is a young man in his late 20s. When he asked for this meeting some time ago, he told the official's assistant that the subject was sustainable energy at the university.

The young man's name is Mark Orlowski. He has come to tell the official, respectfully, that the university is wasting energy and money and at the same time endangering the environment. He proposes that the university create a revolving fund from its own cash reserves and use it to make simple, commonsense improvements to its physical plant, like installing light bulbs that use less energy and insulating buildings so they require less heat in winter and less air-conditioning in summer, and that the university use the money it "earns" from lower utility bills to repay the revolving fund and continue the process across the campus.

The proposition seems strange at first to almost all the universities to whom it is made. Some hesitate and procrastinate. While Orlowski and his team are not above organizing student pressure on campus to help concentrate the minds of the university administrators pondering their proposal, they basically want to work "in the suites, not in the streets." They understand that their biggest enemy is not opposition, but inertia.

As of today Orlowski's organization, called the Sustainable Endowments Institute, has persuaded 35 institutions to make energy-efficient investments totaling $83 million. Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus is the only one in New York so far. Orlowski and his colleagues call their campaign the Billion Dollar Green Challenge. I'm betting they'll reach that ambitious goal.

The virtuous cycle of investment, efficiency, competitiveness, clean growth and jobs represented by the Billion Dollar Green Challenge is key to our future economic success as a nation. Conventional energy will keep getting more expensive. Fossil-fuel use is frying the planet. We need to be greener and more efficient than our competitors. And the largest untapped source of clean energy -- a source totally under American control -- is efficiency.

This is not a dream. Electricity use per capita in most parts of the country has doubled over the past 30 years, but there is a state where electricity use stood still -- even while its economy grew dramatically. It's California.

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How did they do it? California employs a range of methods, from energy codes for new buildings to new lighting standards. But the key was changing the way private utilities were regulated, through a combination of state law and Public Utilities Commission regulation. Instead of letting utilities make more money for selling more electricity, California set the rates for utilities so they could only make bigger profits if their customers used less electricity. The utilities moaned and groaned, swore it would be a disaster, predicted brownouts and job losses. But when the state insisted, they buckled down and made it work. The utilities offered their customers incentives to use less electricity, from home insulation packages to loans for new energy-efficient refrigerators. And it worked.

That's why Orlowski and his team are on the right track.

I asked him if he'd thought about another kind of institution that ranks high among energy wasters -- hospitals. His eyes sparkled. "We're starting to work on that," he said.

Wish him luck. This is a path the whole country needs to get on.

Peter Goldmark, a former budget director of New York State and former publisher of the International Herald Tribune, headed the climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund.