Why more college campuses are going carbon neutral

A few years ago, hundreds of U.S. colleges publicly committed to achieve zero net emissions goals and now conditions are favorable to follow through

June 01, 2017

In 2009, college and university leaders representing all 50 states signed a climate commitment to make their campuses carbon-neutral. Today, the Climate Leadership Network includes more than 600 U.S. institutions, which together serve roughly a third of the nation’s students.

As with any ambitious goal, there is lag time between commitment and execution, says Bob Best, Head of Energy and Sustainability for JLL. “Every school will have a different path and timeline to becoming carbon-neutral.”

But according to JLL’s new college sustainability research, the conditions are favorable for schools to achieve their zero-net goals. “There’s a lot of great momentum right now for colleges aiming to reduce their climate footprint,” says Best. “Some schools are ahead of the game and are paving the way for more to follow in their suit.”

Leading the way to a carbon-neutral future

A few schools have already achieved carbon-neutral status, including College of the Atlantic, Colby College in Maine, as well as Middlebury College and Green Mountain College in Vermont. Others plan to reach the goal in the very near future, with Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, American University in DC, and Bowdoin College in Maine all on track for 2020 neutrality.

“Carbon-neutral plans are doable in large part thanks to their widespread appeal among students, parents, trustees, professors and the administration,” says Best. “Like other successful sustainability programs, achieving carbon neutrality can support recruitment and retention, driving public perception higher.” In fact, a Princeton Review survey found that 61 percent of prospective college students say their application and enrollment decisions would be influenced by learning about a school’s environmental programs.

Meanwhile, administrators and trustees tend to appreciate economic benefits inherent in carbon neutrality programs, including more efficient operations and the ability to take advantage of rebates and incentives, and stay ahead of potential city and state energy and carbon mandates.

However, there are factors that make it easier for some, rather than others, to go carbon-neutral.

“Institutional size plays a big part in ramp-up time,” says Best. “It’s only natural that larger schools would need more lead time than their small-campus peers. Still, some of the biggest players are stepping up to the challenge.”

Colorado State University, the University of Connecticut, and University of Washington are amongst the larger schools aiming for carbon neutrality. And perhaps most notably, the entire University of California system plans to reach carbon neutrality by 2025.

All of these forward-looking campuses have followed their own path to carbon neutrality. For example, Green Mountain College installed a biomass plant on site, which uses locally sourced wood chips as fuel to supply 85 percent of the campus’ heat and hot water. Meanwhile Colorado State University is winning clean energy with a solar power system that generates 8,500,000 kWh annually, and gives students hands-on experience in maintaining hardware and studying real-time data.

Ways to make carbon-neutral plans succeed

While strategy specifics will vary from school to school, there are some universal paths to success in achieving a carbon-neutral campus.

For starters, incentives and rebates can have profound impact on a project’s viability. For example, the University of California is leveraging a $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to build a net-zero-energy community at its Davis campus. The opportunities vary from state to state, and city to city, but are a critical consideration in strategic planning.

While it can be satisfying to see years of sustainability planning and implementation reflected in certifications like LEED and Green Globes, it’s important not to let the craving to “chase points” overpower the bigger picture goals. Indeed, colleges should be focusing on long-term value rather than short-term perks, Best recommends. Quick wins like a simple lighting retrofit can be tempting, but even better long-term results are possible when you consider more complex solutions, like bi-level lighting.

Going one stage further, “investing in smart and renewable technology can also help to enhance the user experience, boost energy efficiency and improve resilience,” explains Best. For example, wireless sensors can be used to remotely monitor and control building equipment, making buildings more comfortable while improving maintenance, and in turn, capital planning. Onsite renewables, together with smart managing systems, can also help ensure campuses stay “powered on,” even when the municipal grid goes down.

There is no single path to a carbon-neutral future. But there are many ways forward for campuses looking to boost their green credentials with potential benefits reaching far beyond their immediate environment.