How colleges and universities achieve sustainability in tough times

by Scott Priest, Editorial Director, Financials & GRC

June 25, 2010

This is a perfect story for a Friday afternoon: It's about a positive subject (sustainability and carbon neutrality) and it's only vaguely related to work. University Business has an article up about how colleges and universities are battling with sustainability promises they've made, and goals they've set, given the economic downturn.

Let's look at a sample, that just so happens to be about my alma mater.

During challenging economic times, institutions are thinking more than usual about aligning efforts across campus. Bates College (Maine) is working toward carbon neutrality by 2020, an aggressive goal. Officials developed a climate action plan in conjunction with a major facilities master plan revision. Such integrated planning saves costs, increases efficiencies, and ensures sustainable growth, says Sustainability Coordinator Julie Rosenbach. “Often the goals of energy savings and greenhouse gas reductions and saving money are compatible overall; it’s the initial capital costs that make people associate sustainability with higher cost. ... We were able to integrate sustainability ideas and costs into ongoing projects and utility infrastructure needs rather than propose them separately, where they would compete for funding.”

The centerpiece of the Bates plan is conversion of the main campus steam plant to a biomass cogeneration facility. The new biomass boiler system will kick in around the time when demand on campus would outweigh the capacity of the current steam plant. “The central strategy of converting our main steam plant to a biomass cogeneration facility is triggered when energy loads of new buildings exceed the capacity of our current plant,” says Rosenbach. “That way the additional cost of converting the plant to a carbon neutral source is lower, and the payback is around 10 years.” The new biomass boiler system would reduce the college’s net emissions by 70 percent.

Bates was always pretty forward-thinking regarding economic issues when I was there, which is no surprise given its fairly liberal student body. We always had flimsy brown fully recycled napkins, and every year plastic was less and less prevalent on campus. Obviously they are taking significant steps beyond that, as are many other schools.

Colleges and universities have pretty distinct economic models, so it's hard to draw too many parallels, but Julie's quote in the first paragraph in sample is useful -- achieving sustainability can actually help save money, and not cost it, if you do it right.

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