Sustainability at Colleges and Universities: A Higher Calling for Higher Education

""Sustainability on college campuses used to bring to mind images of recycling bins in the student centers, composting in the food courts, a sign or two in the restroom reminding us to use the electric dryer in lieu of wasting paper towels, and the occasional volunteer asking for our signature for one environmental cause or another. However, as the 2013 edition of the Princeton Review’s Guide to 322 Green Colleges explores, sustainability on campus is no longer limited to recycling and petition signing.

More and more U.S. colleges and universities are recognizing the larger possibilities of taking a whole-systems approach to making their campuses more sustainable. Even as higher education institutions face tough financial times and difficult budgetary decisions, they are finding strong justification for making sustainability, including energy efficiency and renewable generation, a part of their long-term plans. At the same time, students are asking deeper and more difficult questions about their schools’ commitment to sustainability, efficiency, and the environment.

A Grid-Flexible Campus in Southern California

The University of California, San Diego’s microgrid project exemplifies the synergistic relationship between managing energy demands, being fiscally responsible, and reducing overall environmental impact. The microgrid, which includes gas turbines, a steam turbine, methane, and 1.2 megawatts of solar PV, serves a campus community of more than 45,000 people, 450 buildings, and generates 92 percent of the electricity used on campus annually. Not only does the campus save more than $800,000 in power costs each month, but it can also “island” in a power emergency—disconnecting from the grid and continuing to produce power when the grid goes down. In addition to the microgrid, 52 percent of the campus’s vehicles use some form of alternative fuel, and the campus hopes to have the largest, most diverse range of electric vehicle charging stations at any university in the world, with more than 70 percent available for public use.

People might expect campuses in stereotypically green California to be environmentally active, but three schools on the Princeton Review’s Green Honor Roll offer another glimpse into how different regions and different education systems can offer the rest of us an example of best practices in sustainability and innovation.

Carbon Neutral in the Nation’s Capital

Located in the nation’s capital, American University (undergrad population ~7,000) boasts a target of climate neutrality by 2020 and is home to Washington, D.C.’s largest solar hot water array, with 174 panels providing hot showers to the more than 2,000 students living on campus. For students interested in just how much energy a given campus facility consumes, AU has a website to track real-time electricity demand for each building. The new School of International Service is seeking LEED Gold certification, and thirty other campus buildings are seeking Silver certification or better.  As part of the university’s goal to produce zero waste, it has a cogeneration system that uses the waste cooking oil from the cafeteria and converts it to electricity and hot water. Using 90 gallons of oil per week, the Vegawatt produces 77 megawatt-hours of electricity each year.

Warm and Green in the Northern Midwest

With average winter temps hovering between 15 and 30 degrees Fahrenheit, there is no doubt that the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh (population ~13,000) is likely to have hefty energy bills, so to fight both climate change and meet its energy needs, the university has taken a three-pronged approach to renewable energy. First, the campus gets about 23 percent of its electricity through purchasing wind power. Second, it has incorporated solar energy technologies on the campus, both PV and solar thermal. Third, in 2011, UW Oshkosh debuted the first commercial-scale dry anaerobic biodigester in the Americas to power turbines that generate electricity from biomass. It will soon pipe waste heat from the biomass plant into nearby buildings for space heat. On the building side, the university has adopted the goal of LEED Gold certification for all future construction, with several current buildings under review for certification.

Students Driving Sustainability

Often students are the major drivers behind sustainability on campus. “They do a lot of the research,” Judy Walton, director of strategic initiatives for the nonprofit Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, told San Diego’s Union-Tribune. “They often push faculty and administrators to do the right thing . . . In many cases, they’re leading the charge.”

This was the case at Harvard, where the student-led “Divest Harvard” campaign recently received recognition for the acceptance of a petition to the university’s president calling for the school’s divestment from publicly traded fossil fuel companies. A partner in the nation’s widening “Fossil Free” movement, Harvard’s efforts are echoed at more than 200 campuses across the United States. Publicized and supported by, Fossil Free’s parent organization, the campus divestment campaign draws from environmental activist and author Bill McKibben’s proposal that in order to “green” their campuses, schools must “green” their endowment investments as well. Students at Harvard, which has roof-mounted wind turbines and over 1 megawatt of solar PV, have taken McKibben’s advice to heart. There are now over 1,400 undergrads, graduate students, faculty, and alumni supporting the divestment campaign.

As a new generation of students wrestles with important questions about energy, the environment, and climate, it’s a perfect time for college campuses to try to get an “A” in sustainability. The search for answers had led many to the sun, and the wind, and advanced biofuels, and . . . you get the idea. From zero waste to microgrids, higher education campuses today are giving sustainability more than the old college try.

For more information:

RMI’s publication Accelerating Campus Climate Initiatives is a great resource for those working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from college and university campus operations. It describes a wide array of challenges or barriers to campus climate-mitigation efforts. More importantly, the book describes solutions to each barrier and often provides examples and resources.

Recommended Reading

Image courtesy of