In the fall of 2016, Cornell University released its “Climate Action Plan”—a comprehensive outline designed to help the school achieve carbon neutrality by 2035. The program takes a five-step approach, targeting energy conservation, transportation alternatives, renewable energy, green development, and carbon offsetting actions. Combined, these five approaches will allow the Ithaca, New York, university to use pre-existing infrastructure in conjunction with new technologies to achieve carbon neutrality.

Cornell University hydroelectric dam
(photo by Emma Dietz)

On campus, Cornell already has a variety of renewable power sources in place. The oldest renewable energy generator on campus is the hydroelectric dam, built in the 1880s (but overhauled since then!), which has a total output of 1,200 kilowatts (kW). Cornell has also invested in a Lake Source Cooling (LSC) plant, which serves to cool the campus while eliminating the need for refrigeration equipment. This helps to curtail any carbon emissions that would be otherwise associated with cooling (which is very energy-intensive), and also preemptively addresses any potential issues with the refrigerants that were designed to replace chlorofluorocarbons (greenhouse gases with a powerful global warming effect). Lake Sourcing Cooling is a long term solution (designed to last between 75 and 100 years) that ultimately saves over 20 million Kilowatt hours of electricity per year.

On campus, there is also the Cornell Combined Heat and Power Plant (CCHPP), which simultaneously produces electricity, and uses the generated “waste” heat to meet campus heating needs. The CCHPP uses natural gas combustion to generate electricity; this process produces excess heat, which is then captured through the heat recovery steam generator, and used on campus. Overall, the CCHPP provides Cornell with 180 kW of power each year.

Cornell is also investing in new sources of renewable energy. Recently, the university completed construction of a solar photovoltaic farm, which aims to power 6 percent of the campus, and will effectively reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 650 metric tons per year. The Climate Action Plan also proposes further research into the feasibility of geothermal power and wind energy, two renewable energy resources that are not currently part of Cornell’s sustainability initiative. Aside from clean energy and resource generation, Cornell has also focused its actions on a multitude of energy conservation strategies, which range from using highly efficient LED light bulbs, to replacing laboratory plant growth chambers which much more efficient ones.

While it is clear that the University has been proactive in taking steps towards carbon neutrality, one of the main drivers behind these changes has been—and continues to be—the student body. Student groups such as KyotoNow! have helped to organize demonstrations and rallies, raise awareness about the threat of climate change, and communicate with the board of executives about the need for carbon neutrality. In fact, the formation of the Cornell Energy Conservation Initiative was largely driven by students pushing the administration to comply with the Kyoto Treaty protocol. The next goal of the student body is to convince the Board of Trustees to divest from fossil fuel industries. While this may take some time, it is clear that Cornell has already begun to take the necessary measures not only to achieve carbon neutrality by 2035, but also to set an example for schools across the nation about the importance and feasibility of going carbon neutral.


Author: Emma Dietz, Cornell University Student.