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Campuses find going green can be tough

Some 580 colleges have vowed to cut their greenhouse-gas impact to zero. Many missed the first deadline.

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Upgrading the infrastructure has been messy and has cost nearly $14 million since 2003. But because of that investment, the campus has been able to add nearly 500,000 square feet of new facilities and at the same time reduce its steam output, which reduces emissions.

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Centralized control of building temperatures has also made a difference. Faculty and grad students used to be able to control the thermostat when they wanted to work in the middle of the night. Now, Ms. Thompson says, “there’s more of that concept of scheduling building use, and beginning to tell people what they can and cannot do, which has been a big culture change for faculty.”

Slowly but surely, faculty and students are also being weaned off cars. Their local commuting makes up 12 percent of campus greenhouse gases. Biking incentives, shuttle buses (powered by biofuel and compressed natural gas), and more-flexible parking permits have all helped. But as fewer people need to pay parking fees and fines, “that drives a loss of revenue,” says Katherine Decarreau, director of transportation and parking services. Finding a sustainable funding stream for her green initiatives is the next challenge, she says.

These are some examples of how “the low-hanging fruit has been picked,” Thompson says. While proud of UVM’s accomplishments so far – including a new student center that meets the highest green-building standards – she wants to see emissions go down, not just hold steady.

For UVM and other campuses, it’s key that decisionmakers break out of traditional “silos” to come up with climate action strategies, says Sally DeLeon, a research fellow at the Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit energy policy think tank in Snowmass, Colo.

“A lot of times, the barrier is stated as, ‘It’s too expensive,’ ” when it comes to investing in a new heating or cooling system, she says, but often the real problem is that capital and operating budgets are looked at separately, which makes it difficult to account for money that would be saved down the road.

Factors beyond campus boundaries also play a major role. Some of UVM’s progress is due to the local Burlington Electric’s commitment to renewable sources such as hydroelectric power and a wood-burning generating station. UVM’s electricity emits about 13 percent of the campus’s greenhouse gases, but it’s much cleaner than that available on most campuses.

Universities can’t go carbon neutral on their own, Thompson says. “What we need to figure out next is how can we work with our community…. Significant reductions will require changes beyond the campus – locally, regionally, and nationally…. It’s going to be a really wild ride.”

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