(TNS) -- Ohio State University has decided that the idea of leasing the right to operate the university's energy systems has enough merit to go forward with seeking bids.

Top university officials, in an email earlier this week, said they'll start defining the details of a possible "comprehensive energy management plan" and, within a few months, issue a formal request for proposals. A website dedicated to the exploration of the idea says that a winning proposal isn't likely to be chosen and presented to the Board of Trustees before fall.

University leaders tout it as a way to secure a large up-front payment that could support university programs, while improving the university's energy efficiency, by requiring any potential partner to invest in better and greener technology. It's a similar model to the one the university used to privatize parking operations in 2012.

But critics, principally Ohio State's chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops and members of Communications Workers of America Local 4501, charge that such an arrangement would cost campus utility workers their jobs and could undermine the university's commitment to sustainable energy.

The idea of outsourcing the university's energy management first was aired a year ago, when officials put out a request for qualifications, to determine whether companies would be interested in a partnership. Forty-four companies or teams responded. Forty of those were deemed qualified and, in October, they were asked to provide more information on how they might do the job.

Ten teams responded by December, each pledging that it could meet the university's goal of reducing energy use by 25 percent within 10 years.

"We understand that some important questions have yet to be answered," the officials said in the campus email. "The next step is to fully define the details of how a partnership might work."

The student group, which in January interrupted OSU President Michael V. Drake's annual address to the University Senate with a protest, urged followers on social media Monday to call Drake's office, offering a suggested script. On Tuesday, the group sent a letter to Drake expressing disappointment in the decision to move forward with planning.

"We see a constant cycle of government defunding of public assets and universities, and then inviting in private corporations to solve the problem," the letter said. "Instead of seeking profit-driven solutions, we urge you to seek more public funding to solve our energy crisis. We can make the difference in-house without jeopardizing people's livelihoods and families."

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