Towards Carbon-Neutral College Campuses

View of Yale Campus photo

Participant Yale University is taking significant steps towards carbon-neutral buildings. Photo by Michael Kinsley.

"Can you name a college that was not founded to exist into perpetuity?" David Shi, President of Furman University, asks the room rhetorically. "Sustainability is the most precious endowment," he says, explaining his reasons for participating in RMI's June workshop on campus climate initiatives - a follow up to research mentioned previously.The workshop, which took place in Denver, June 2-4, is the culmination of "Accelerating Campus Climate Initiatives," a two-year project created and facilitated by Rocky Mountain Institute in collaboration with the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). The workshop convened representatives from 12 colleges and universities to share innovative climate related project information, solutions to barriers and problems, and ideas for funding and marketing climate initiatives to trustees.

Many schools are committing to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions as part of their campus planning. Not only are students and faculty pressuring their schools to address the climate crisis, but trustees are looking to energy efficiency and renewable energy to help reduce long-term energy costs. Most schools involved in the workshop have made a commitment to achieve carbon neutrality on their campuses under the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment.

Workshop participants—who ranged from university facilities managers and administrators to professors and student activists— cited a variety of reasons for their interest in climate issues, including concerns about health issues, energy carbon saving potential, and the worrisome prospect of having kids in a world facing a climate crisis. Energy efficiency and carbon emissions are the goal of most climate programs but campus representatives were also striving for healthier buildings and more resilient communities.

Luther college bicycle sharing photo

Shared bikes at Luther College, one of the participants in the Accelerating Campus Climate Initiatives workshop.

Preceding the workshop, RMI visited the 12 participating campuses for two days each to check out individual campus programs and initiatives and give campus and climate initiative participants on each campus sustained attention. RMI, through an anonymous donor, is offering seed grants ($35,000- $50,000 per institution) to provide each participating campus with an opportunity to implement a high priority project that advances its climate program. Each school will use this funding to launch an important greenhouse gas reduction project or contribute to solving a thorny or significant barrier to climate neutrality.

Some proposed project ideas include installations of solar electric and solar hot water demonstration systems on a student housing complex; assessment of energy efficiency opportunities on a campus; installing energy metering to engage residents and building occupants in conservation; and construction of a small wind farm near campus that would generate electricity for the campus.

RMI staff worked with campuses to hone their proposals during the workshop and also worked to incorporate integrated design principles into each project. "RMI estimates 25-50 % of operating energy can be saved in existing buildings if you use whole systems renovations," RMI architect James Brew told participants.

Later this summer, RMI will publish the findings from Accelerating Campus Climate Initiatives online on its Built Environment Team site, outlining common barriers and targeted solutions for a whole-system approach to achieving low-carbon campus operations. The findings will be a record for participants, and RMI believes other colleges and universities can benefit from this information as they build frameworks for their climate initiatives. Several campus participants also expressed the hope that their work on campuses will serve as a model for non-academic institutions.

By: Rocky Mountain Institute, Molly Miller

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Towards Carbon-Neutral College Campuses
"Can you name a college that was not founded to exist into perpetuity?" David Shi, President of Furman University, asks the room

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