University and college campuses have long played an innovative role in America, producing research that has led to breakthroughs in everything from medicine to metaphysics. Often, they have been at the vanguard of putting this research into practice—they were, for instance, among the first institutions to adopt electrification. Today, they are leading the way in sustainability.
In the past decade, university and college campuses, which can sprawl over hundreds of acres, have become increasingly concerned about their environmental impact. Buildings and infrastructure use energy and natural resources for their construction and operation.
Laboratories, computer centers and personal electronic devices demand a lot of electricity, which produces greenhouse gas emissions if the electricity is generated from fossil fuel combustion.
Faced with these issues, many institutions have adopted Campus Sustainability Plans to reduce the environmental impact of campus facilities while improving the learning environment.
An especially popular way for institutions to reduce their carbon footprint is to incorporate green design into their buildings. The United States Green Building Council documents at least 110 colleges with green buildings. More frequently than ever, colleges and universities are designing new buildings and retrofitting old ones to meet LEED certification standards.
On a campus-wide scale, colleges and universities have also made impressive commitments to using renewable energy. In 2006, the College of the Atlantic became the first U.S. college to go carbon neutral. Kent State recently signed a contract allowing a solar developer to install nearly an acre of solar panels on its athletic facility. Ball State has invested in geothermal and UC Davis features the largest planned zero net-energy community in the United States. Designs for Cornell University's proposed net-zero energy NYC Tech Campus include the largest solar array in NYC and four-acres of geothermal wells.
Many campuses already feature highly efficient district energy systems, which use a central plant and a network of pipes to heat and cool many different buildings in a given community. Often, district energy systems are connected to combined heat and power (CHP) plants, which generate electric power in addition to heating and cooling, and can achieve energy efficiencies above 80 percent (see EESI's fact sheet on District Energy for more details). These CHP plants can be converted to run on renewable energy sources such as geothermal, solar thermal, biogas, municipal solid waste, or other types of biomass. Princeton University's power plant, for instance, can switch from natural gas to biodiesel. The University of Iowa fuels its district energy system with oat hulls that are co-fired with coal and natural gas. The University of Minnesota's Morris Campus features a biomass gasification plant, fueled by crop residues from nearby farms, and has a 1.6 Megawatt wind turbine (in April 2012, the EPA announced that the campus had made it on its Top 20 On-site Generation list of the largest green power users). And UCLA's cogeneration plant is fueled in part by landfill gas (seven percent of the total).
College and university cafeterias are also receiving a green makeover with more local and organic food in their dining halls. Student gardens have sprung up to help supply local food. Even urban campuses, such as the University of Pennsylvania and George Washington University, offer students a chance to garden.
In many places the approach has not been top down. Colleges and universities are using new sustainability measures as a way to inform and be informed by students. Students conduct research in renewable energy technologies, sustainability, and efficient buildings which can then be implemented outside the laboratory. For example, University of Washington students melded their academic and environmental interests together by researching how to fuel cars with used cooking oil. As part of Duke University's Smart Home program, teams of students dream, design, and implement sustainability in their LEED platinum-certified dorm. The dorm, in effect a live-in research laboratory, includes passive thermal cooling, 18 solar panels, six rainwater collectors to provide graywater for toilets and washers, and two labs in which students test new ideas.
Sustainability programs are happening nationwide on an impressive scale. In 2007, 12 universities and colleges formed the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) to set attainable goals, and remain accountable for carbon reduction plans. Five years later, ACUPCC includes more than 675 institutions which educate more than 30 percent of the nation’s college and university students. Each institution that signs on agrees to report greenhouse gas emissions, develop a carbon-neutral course of action, and take specific steps to achieve its goals. With extensive reports and collaboration, newly committed institutions can learn from what has worked for others. Collectively, the ACUPCC has reduced emissions by 25 percent and predicts 93 percent reductions from baseline emissions by 2050. Even more impressive, 71 percent of the institutions reported saving money just two years after beginning their sustainability programs. Anthony Cortese, the group’s organizer, highlights the unprecedented aspect of the initiative, “We have a 94 percent retention rate for a voluntary effort that requires you to actually do something and report publicly on your progress. And emissions are going down, education is going up and money is being saved.”
The ACUPCC goal of reaching carbon-neutrality won't be easy. Wendell C. Brase from the National Association of College and University Business Officers argues that with student education, limited renewable energy production, and energy efficiency retrofits, many colleges will only see 50 percent reductions. Rather than giving up hope, Brase details the options ACUPCC schools can consider in order to stick to their carbon-neutral goals in a cost-effective way. Among the options are increasing on-campus housing to reduce commuter emissions, working with utilities to build off-site renewable generators, and exploit emerging carbon markets.
This sampling of initiatives and the institutions that have implemented them is only a small part of the growing trend of green colleges and universities. The trend is so prevalent that the Sustainable Endowments Institute has created the College Sustainability Report Card to compare institutions on green measures. These exciting and important initiatives will provide substantial returns on investment in the form of energy/cost savings, health benefits, reduced pollution, ecosystem protection, and enhanced campus safety and security. But, the greatest benefit may well be the sustainable living lessons that students spread outside the campus gates after graduation.