Living up to your presidential commitment to sustainability

10 best practices for your journey toward a carbon-neutral campus

Environmental sustainability has emerged as a major factor in student recruitment and to nearly every major university stakeholder from students and faculty to parents and alumni.

Despite the hype, achieving carbon neutrality is a journey that never really ends and requires constant diligence. The good news: the terrain for this journey isn’t as difficult as it used to be. A vast array of solutions and technologies are available to help campuses achieve carbon neutrality.

These paths to carbon neutrality have been carved out because of the clear interest in, and importance of, sustainability to university communities.

Addressing energy conservation and sustainability not only appeals to these stakeholders, but also helps your institution save precious funds, operate more efficiently and anticipate state, provincial and regional energy and carbon mandates.

Furthermore, more than 61 percent of respondents to a Princeton Review’s Guide to Green Colleges survey said they would value having data about sustainability included in college and university ratings. In addition to the many institutions that have signed the Carbon Commitment (formerly known as the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment), countless others have made informal commitments to achieving carbon neutrality.

Where is your campus on the journey to carbon neutrality?

Hundreds of colleges and universities are already reaping the benefits of their carbon neutrality initiatives. Others are just getting started. Many best practices are available—including those of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE)—to reduce and eventually reach greenhouse gas emission neutrality on campuses. Wherever your institution may be in its journey to carbon neutrality, the following are 10 best practices to further your environmental sustainability goals.

1. Commit to ongoing stakeholder engagement

Pursuit of carbon neutrality requires both resources and commitment to change to not only kick-start the initiative, but also to keep it rolling. You’ll need the vision and strong support of campus leadership to inspire staff, faculty and students, and insist that your campus support energy conservation, recycling and other environmental efforts.

Whether a change is as simple as asking professors to turn off classroom lights or as major as signing an agreement with a third-party solar power provider, no change initiative is successful without the buy-in of those affected. The vision and strong support of campus leaders in the context of a thoughtful change management program will go a long way toward ensuring compliance when practices require some degree of effort, discomfort or inconvenience for faculty and staff.

Creating a multi-disciplinary steering committee for carbon neutrality can further help build a sustainable green campus culture that includes all stakeholders and maintains focus on the larger picture.

2. Take advantage of no- or low-cost measures to further success

If your campus is like most, you launched a self-sustaining recycling program years ago as a first step toward carbon neutrality. The road to carbon neutrality can include many other no-cost or low-cost possibilities for achieving substantive carbon footprint reductions.

For example, you could take recycling a step further with a “trash-to-cash” program, selling waste materials to willing buyers to achieve zero-waste buildings. You can even begin at the procurement stage by seeking products that are made from recycled materials, are biodegradable or recyclable, and produce minimum waste or waste that can be resold. Another option is “single stream” recycling, in which recyclable items are not separated.

Water efficiency is another area in which a small step creates a big impact. Many campuses have banned plastic water bottles, sometimes even providing students with long-lasting personal bottles, and installing bottle-filling stations that help reduce waste. Water also can be recycled on a small or large scale, and used to water landscapes, sports fields, chillers, laundry and more.

Another water-conservation strategy, particularly for drought-prone areas, is to create landscaping with hardy native plants that can thrive with minimum attention. To further conserve water, use generous mulching—and you can create your own by composting food waste and landscape debris into sustainable mulch for use on campus grounds.

Finding ways to reduce energy use and use energy more efficiently is another important step on the journey to carbon neutrality. Some universities begin with a campus-wide assessment of energy usage to identify the greatest sources of greenhouse gases and prioritize carbon-footprint reduction efforts.

An initial (phase one) energy assessment may reveal a broad range of issues, some requiring long-term capital investment, time and resources. To support a business case for tomorrow’s broad initiative, you can pilot energy efficiency campaigns and policies today on a single building or a smaller group of buildings.

Another jumping-off point is a space allocation study that examines how and when classrooms and other facilities are actually being used and require heating and cooling. Often, this assessment will reveal opportunities to consolidate facilities or possibly lease or sell them to a third party to reduce energy demands.

In the meantime, any number of small, everyday actions, from switching off unused lights and electric appliances to turning down thermostats and establishing a slightly lower setpoint for hot water heaters, can have a significant impact. Your IT team can set public computers to automatically sleep when not in use. Procurement teams can replace worn-out equipment with energy-efficient Energy Star models—even the campus laundromat can become more efficient. In multi-story buildings, you can try parking elevators and escalators during off-peak times.

3. Create, enforce and update campus wide environmental policies and programs

Campus energy and environmental policies formalize and strengthen commitments, and empower those who are charged with achieving them. Policies can be as broad as expressing the institutional goal of reducing energy usage by 20 percent, or as detailed as specifying target seasonal heating and cooling temperatures or both.

For example, a university in Boston found that it could save approximately $180,000 per year for each degree of overcooling that was corrected campus-wide. That number rose to $290,000 per degree when overheating was corrected. The university estimated that even greater savings could be achieved by restricting fan run-times.

Many commercial buildings use a no cost concept called “energy coasting” to save energy. By simply turning off heating and cooling equipment a few minutes before official “after-hours” begins in a group of buildings, you may be able to save tens of thousands of dollars annually without any occupants even noticing. Start by shutting down systems 15 minutes earlier than usual and monitor the building environment to determine whether you’re compromising occupant health and comfort. Depending on the building, you might be able to shut down even earlier while maintaining temperature and air quality.

4. Don’t focus on low-hanging fruit at the expense of longer-term actions

Every campus has its “energy hogs”- buildings or systems that are particularly wasteful. When you correct them, the result is like striking gold.

Rapid-payback measures can be tempting. For example, lighting retrofits can reduce energy costs quickly, especially on campuses that have lots of incandescent bulbs or older-style fluorescent lighting.

However, take care to avoid the fast payback trap. Too much emphasis on today’s quick wins and “low-hanging fruit” can erode resources for larger and more meaningful investments. Resources may fade away if it appears, however superficially, that additional investment is not essential.

For example, you can reduce energy dramatically by adopting bi-level lighting in stairwells and other rarely used locations. Rather than operating at full brightness all the time, bi-level lighting fixtures produce low light until someone enters the area and built-in motion sensors trigger full brightness. However, installing new bi-level fixtures across campus may require more budget than is available in any given year. Rather than abandoning the measure altogether, consider a multiyear plan for phased implementation so you can capture savings today and into the future.

By tackling some short- and long-payback measures together, the combined returns are attractive and complement one another. In the long run, you will be able to accomplish more.

5. Avoid “pointchasing” tactics and focus on outcomes

If you are looking at renovations, upgrades or new construction as part of your carbon-neutrality plan, you may be considering achieving LEED, Green Globes or other certifications. As appealing as these certifications may be, the narrow pursuit of certification points can overshadow the larger goals of energy conservation, environmental sustainability and building functionality.

Adding a bike rack might garner certification points, but will it make the building more environmentally efficient and well-suited for its occupants?

Rather than focusing solely on certifications, strive for continuous improvement and a holistic view. When it comes to energy, for instance, the most effective measures for a building—regardless of certification status— are enhanced commissioning to constantly fine-tune building performance, and measurement and verification to monitor results. These strategies require upfront investment and ongoing attention, which is why some projects exclude them in favor of simpler point-focused tactics.

6. Use benchmarking to guide your campus-wide and individual initiatives

Colleges and universities are beginning to benchmark sustainability practices and results against peers to prioritize investments and showcase results to stakeholders.

Benchmarking an organization’s sustainability practices and results against its peers is commonplace in private industry for prioritizing investments and showcasing results to stakeholders. Some colleges and institutions are adopting this approach as well.

You can benchmark outcomes for the campus as a whole and for each individual building to identify areas of performance concern. Campus-wide areas to benchmark might include university policies, targets, monitoring, and communications related to energy, water, waste, resource use, fleet management, purchasing and transportation. Individual building benchmarks will vary depending on the uses, whether residences, classrooms, offices, sports facilities, libraries or laboratories.

You may wish to track whether a building or group of buildings has features to support energy efficiency; renewable energy; water conservation; reduced emissions, effluents and pollution; and a healthy indoor environment, as well as how those features compare to peer facilities.

7. Wrap energy conservation initiatives into capital planning

The solution lies in capital planning, because better-maintained buildings tend to have smaller carbon footprints. Prioritizing capital projects is a major challenge that some institutions are addressing through building condition assessments. 

Funding energy conservation investments is a challenge at most institutions. The solution lies in capital planning, because better-maintained buildings tend to have smaller carbon footprints.

Of course, in many colleges and universities deferred maintenance is the elephant in the room that grows larger over time as aging buildings continue to decline. An estimated 40 percent of campus space was rapidly constructed between 1960 and 1975 to accommodate the Baby Boomer generation’s pursuit of higher education, with little regard to longevity and energy efficiency. According to a 2015 study, The State of Sustainability in Higher Education, by Sightlines and the University of New Hampshire, institutions that have shifted their capital investments to building exteriors, mechanical systems and utility infrastructure have made the most progress toward reducing GHG emissions and energy usage.

Facility assessments can be used to evaluate buildings in terms of their performance, systems and operations, including those relating to energy efficiency. A typical facilities assessment covers all aspects of a facility and provides estimated costs for remediation projects along with an overall score for the facility’s condition. In aggregate, facility assessments provide a clear picture of maintenance requirements and suggest a roadmap for funding near- and long-term priority capital projects.

In an energy assessment or audit, an engineer investigates the building envelope, lighting systems and control and plug load, heating/cooling plant and HVAC for each building, along with monthly utility bills for electricity, fuel and water. The assessment can “red flag” specific energy features causing excessive energy consumption and provide estimated cost-benefits analyses of remediating the issues.

Where capital improvements appear necessary, an investment-grade audit is recommended for specific initiatives to provide definitive values for costs, savings and return on investment. Using this information, energy-focused improvements can be included in overall capital planning rather than requiring stand-alone budgets.

8. Adobt smart building technologies

A growing number of institutions are adopting smart building management systems that use wireless sensors to remotely monitor and control automated building equipment. Smart control systems can provide ventilation, heating and cooling when needed based on space occupancy. With as little as a one- or two-year payback through energy savings, automated “smart” building technology offers some of the best returns on investment.

Smart buildings tend to be more energy-efficient and comfortable than those with legacy systems, through precise regulation of building systems. Energy savings also come from operational efficiencies related to continuous “commissioning,” or fine-tuning of building systems, along with ongoing detection, diagnosis and resolution of equipment issues, and preventive maintenance. Using a Web-based portal, facility managers can track utility billing data, including submeter data, and other metrics to inform detailed greenhouse gas reporting, better capital planning and business cases for additional energy conservation investments.

Smart building technologies offer more than just sustainability—they can improve safety, as well. As on-site renewable energy sources such as solar panels become more affordable, interconnected buildings with renewable power generation and smart building functionality can save energy and provide a power microgrid to generate energy even when the municipal grid is down.

9. Explore renewables

Renewable energy sources can complement other strategies to eliminate the carbon emission deficit after many other energy-saving measures have been implemented. The cost of renewables is falling dramatically in many areas and, in some locations, is now on par with the cost of conventional energy sources.

Much progress in reducing campus carbon footprints has come from switching from high-carbon energy sources (e.g., coal and oil) to lower carbon natural gas or even zero-emissions renewable energy.

Renewable energy sources might even be available on campus—some universities are converting waste cooking oil into biodiesel fuel for generators or tapping geothermal heat.

As energy production and delivery systems continue to evolve, with new options like cost-effective on-site power storage, microgrids, and other innovations, new options can benefit campus operations and finances alike.

Many projects have already achieved significant cost savings. For example, the University of California is using a $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to build a net-zero-energy community—where renewable energy will offset conventional energy use—for an estimated 3,000 residents on its 130-acre West Village Davis (UC Davis) campus.

Additionally, some institutions are partnering with third-party energy services companies to help them adopt renewable energy zero-emission sources, often with no up-front capital investment. An alternate energy brokering service can objectively recommend the most financially and technically feasible energy solution for your campus; secure financing as needed; help you procure a third-party renewable energy provider; negotiate a power purchase agreement; manage implementation and monitor results. The brokering service is paid by the energy provider, not by your institution, thus strengthening your business case.

10. Make your efforts visible on campus

Make sure you get credit for all the good you are doing for the planet, bottom line and your campus community. Use all your communication channels, signage and other opportunities to educate students, parents, faculty, alumni and the local community about your sustainability programs, goals and accomplishments. If you’ve adopted a smart building management platform, you also can generate detailed metrics about greenhouse gas reductions and energy cost savings for individual buildings or the campus as a whole.

Use your existing communication channels and signage to educate students, faculty, alumni and the local community about your sustainability programs, goals and accomplishments.

Marketing the energy or sustainability efforts by demonstrating an environmental commitment and steady progress, as evidenced through improved scores on AASHE’s STARS or other rating system, can also help to maintain top-level support.

As you achieve progress in reducing your campus carbon footprint, your institution can enhance both its brand and the bottom-line by documenting and sharing its journey to carbon neutrality. That’s a journey worth enjoying, every step of the way.

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