In a time of limited financial resources and dwindling enrollment, higher education institutions have to search for innovative ways of cutting costs, while making sure their campuses are modern and attractive to potential students. Over the last several years, more colleges and universities have integrated sustainability into a long-term business model that not only reduces operational costs, but also creates hands-on learning opportunities for students.
It's not just the commitment to the environment that's interesting institution leaders, it's also a reality that energy inefficiency takes away dollars from other areas of the institution. Ron Gregory, a higher education facility and operations management expert, recently told Education Dive, "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 anyone even noticing."
Data from Madison Gas and Electric Co. in Wisconsin show that the average 50,000-square-foot campus building consumes more than $100,000 worth of energy every year. Some of the highest areas of consumption come from ventilation, lighting and computer usage.
Thus, something as simple as students or instructors consistently failing to turn the lights off in classrooms can cost an institution thousands of dollars annually and contribute to its carbon footprint. Researchers hypothesize that a focus on energy-efficiency measures has a potential to cut energy bills by 30% or more.
Sightlines, a company focused on helping campuses create more effective facilities usage plans, has tracked the carbon footprint and emissions of institutions for several years. It notes in its State of Sustainability in Higher Education 2017 report that since 2006, more than 600 U.S. colleges and universities have publicly committed to engage in climate action by signing the Second Nature's American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, which encourages a move toward carbon neutrality.
Sightlines found though institutions have made significant steps — such as moving from coal usage to natural gas to reduce emissions — they still often run into the conundrum of balancing efficiency and growth, explaining that over half consume an equal or greater amount of total electricity as they did in 2007 and thus "despite improved emissions efficiency per square foot, continued space growth will pose a challenge to limiting campus carbon footprints."
All this demonstrates that balancing a desire for growth with a necessary focus on becoming more efficient to save costs can present challenges for institutions.
American University's carbon neutrality plan: More than a goal
American University in Washington, D.C., recently became the first institution to achieve carbon neutrality, after announcing its commitment to the goal in 2010. In order to achieve this vision, without there being a trade off in resources or focus in other areas of campus life, Megan Litke, director of sustainability, said American considered the long-term benefits to the business and student life, rather than just investing in projects that could "check-off a box" on carbon-neutrality initiatives.
"We first looked at our infrastructure use and changed the way we build buildings and the way we manage them, incorporating LEED [energy-efficient building standard] for both new and existing buildings and managing our spaces as efficiently as we can," said Litke.
She added that American also team up with nearby George Washington University to build solar farms in North Carolina, which resulted in 250,000 solar panels to provide 50% of each of the partners' electricity. It also partnered with the local public transportation agency, WMATA, to give students subway fare cards and installed bike-share racks on campus.
And as it began running out of sources of emissions to cut, Litke said the sustainability team focused on offsets projects that would benefit the learning community.
"We built a portfolio of offsets that align with our source of emissions and does something beyond traditional checking off of the box. It also gives us data on urban forestry that we can use in classrooms, and it provides us with environmental benefits we can use for our offsets," she said "A lot of our earlier projects, our efficiency projects save the university money over time. Our green building project does similar things using energy efficiency in our projects."
Energy efficiency as a strategic business practice
Kiho Kim, an environmental science professor at American, said the institution's focus on sustainability was approached as a comprehensive effort.
"The general goal is to reduce our carbon footprint, while at the same time embracing business practices that cut costs. One of the classes I teach the focus is to get students to work on sustainability related projects that benefit the university in lots of different ways, so they work on projects like how do we reduce storm water input into our city infrastructure because DC charges on a per square foot area of non-permeable surfaces [...] this is both beneficial to the environment but also beneficial to the bottom line of the institution," said Kim.
He added that the approach also leverages students' interests. "I think students come to AU having a strong sense of sustainability; they are definitely more aware than say my generation," added Kim. "They come to AU and they see AU as a leader in that space, and its part of the reason why students choose to come here."
When it comes to how other institutions ought to approach this same initiative, Litke said focus on not simply being environmental for the sake of it. It's really about building sustainability into the longevity of the business and the learning ecosystem.
"I think what is interesting for other schools to look at is the way we have used it in our classrooms. Our whole university is an arboretum, and the educational piece is really key in leveraging progress on the sustainability front so that it doesn't just stop at achieving a goal," Litke said. "We hope our students, regardless of what they major in ... will be able to think about it more creatively and bring sustainability into their work."