Never-Ending Story: Moving Forward on Climate Action Planning

Late last year, Brett Pasinella, Coordinator of Climate and Biodiversity Initiatives at University of New Hampshire (UNH), had to make some adjustments in the Climate Action Plan (CAP) of the university.

“The university gained renewable energy service provider status,” he says.

Professor Hazlett and students at the organic farm at Pomona College, one of many projects the school has taken on to model sustainability. (Pomona College)
The change came as UNH decided to invest in a one-of-a-kind project piping methane from a local landfill to the campus’ central boiler. “UNH will eventually generate up to 85% of campus electricity and heat from this source,” says Pasinella.

Starting in 2009, UNH will sell the associated renewable energy credits (RECs) to help finance the capital costs of the pipeline project. “It brings a whole new aspect to our CAP budgeting,” says Pasinella.

UNH is required to have a climate action plan in place within two years of signing the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC).  As of late February, 613 schools have signed the ACUPCC.  Each school’s CAP details how the institution will pursue the goal of carbon neutrality as soon as possible.

Though each campus has a distinct energy consumption and emissions pattern, there are some commonalities when it comes to the process of writing a useful CAP.  These include beginning with accurate energy consumption data, collaboration between vested parties, and incorporating more of the campus community than has traditionally been involved in sustainability issues.

Audits: Getting the Numbers

Even without the curveball of a major capital project, uncertain budget situations and volatile energy markets can complicate CAP writing.  The best way for a CAP to begin, say experienced practitioners, is to start with high-quality baseline data.

“Your first step is to conduct an emissions audit,” says Jack Byrne, Director of Middlebury College’s Sustainability Integration Office.

Middlebury, one of the first to complete a campus CAP, completed the plan through Byrne’s office, also utilizing some student help. The school then turned the audit over to a class to analyze potential projects.

“Our Environmental Economics 265 class gave us a really useful report to evaluate project benefit,” says Byrne. That report, coupled with existing efforts including a biomass boiler project, helped quantify how Middlebury would meet its goal of reducing its emissions by 40% in 2008-09 and become carbon neutral in 2016.

New Hampshire’s Pasinella says it’s vital to prioritize the costs and emissions that are directly under university control, rather than those that are individually influenced, like commuting to campus.

“Take university-sponsored transportation,” he says.  “Just what is the cost savings to the university not having to maintain parking spaces, or the long-term capital impacts of not adding new parking structures?” he asks.

This shouldn’t keep the CAP team from evaluating such projects-but just be ready for more complex analysis to show their cost and emissions reduction benefits.  When the UNH CAP team runs into such questions, Pasinella says, help is nearby.

“We bring in faculty with the expertise to determine how much would really be spent in capital investment and how much we can save in the long run,” he says.

Cooperation Across the Campus

Such cooperation across the campus community is key to writing a successful CAP, no matter what size the institution.

“It’s a collaborative human process, in whatever realm they have oversight,” says Dedee DeLongpré Johnston, Director of the University of Florida’s Office of Sustainability. UF’s Gainesville campus boasts 2,000 acres and a $40 million annual electricity budget.

That process often involves coordinating the CAP team with those involved in energy and master planning.  UNH incorporated its longstanding energy office and master planning office from the beginning.  At Middlebury, where the CAP is complete, a carbon neutrality group works in tandem with the school’s master planning group.  Including such offices in the CAP process from the beginning is crucial.

Each school interviewed also highlighted the timeliness of the CAP process in light of current budget situations.  This makes a school’s finance office, as well as business and finance faculty and students, another key player in a successful CAP process.  “Sustainability has a positive impact on the budget,” says Bowen Patterson of Pomona College.

As Florida addressed recent budget concerns, the VP of Business Affairs implemented an Energy Summit team to evaluate energy cost-saving measures.  Such efforts, common across the country, can be integrated into the CAP team’s process.

“A $5 million energy efficiency project with a two-year payback looks very attractive in today’s budget environment,” says DeLongpré Johnston, “and puts us toward the goal of carbon neutrality.”

Data Collection: Utilizing Students

Pomona College employed those who knew the campus best to collect the data: students.

“Our sustainability audit used paid student labor, working with an outside consultant, to obtain campus data,” says Bowen Patterson, Pomona’s Sustainability Coordinator.  “It allowed us to get a lot more data than if we would have just used students or just used a consultant.”

Pomona’s consultants trained the students, who then combed the campus for energy use data on buildings, literally down to the light bulb.

“We had knowledge of the campus that we were able to share with the consultants, which saved time and money, and allowed for a more accurate depiction of the current state on campus,” says Caitlin Guthrie, one of the six Pomona students who worked on the audit.

Guthrie took the lead on developing a GIS map of the campus to integrate the collected data.  The project put her classroom experience with GIS to use-she credits the experience as one reason she landed a sustainability job after graduation.

That initial student effort, including the database Guthrie helped build, will help Pomona track its baselines into the future.

“We plan to update the audit every summer,” says Patterson, adding that the cooperation of various departments that sourced summer student employment funds was critical to the audit’s original success.

“The whole college has made sustainability a priority and recognizes the value of keeping the information up-to-date,” she says.

Crunching the Numbers

 Whether outsourcing or keeping the cost and carbon audits on campus, many campus sustainability professionals point to the ACUPCC-recommended Clean Air — Cool Planet Campus Carbon Calculator as an essential tool in the CAP process.

“That calculator is pretty much the standard,” says Pomona’s Patterson, “and it’s easy to access and use.”

Once an initial inventory is complete, alternatives can be analyzed.  That can be an added benefit for colleges with sustainability-driven capital projects already underway, says Middlebury’s Byrne.

“Our biomass plant was decided 2 ½ years ago and began heating the campus this January,” he says.  “That alone will reduce our carbon footprint by 40%, and that process has accelerated some of the things we were recommending to become more carbon neutral.”


The necessity for financial and economic analysis in the Climate Action Plan process, notes Pomona’s Patterson, created an opportunity for involvement from a wider segment of students.

“It’s attracted students who are more interested in the financial analysis side-economics and policy analysis-that may not have been as interested in participating in a light-bulb giveaway or some of the earlier sustainability efforts,” she says.

New Hampshire’s Pasinella agrees, noting such wider involvement helped his team start to get a handle on ways a campus CAP can influence the broader university community.

“Our Energy Challenge between dorms provides hard data for how much energy you save when people are and are not thinking about energy use,” he said, noting that they have such data for all their residence halls and several academic buildings.

“But after the first year of Energy Challenge, the Greek system wanted to have their own Challenge,” he said.

And even though that Greek data may not end up in UNH’s baseline audit, says Pasinella, it ultimately goes toward the main goal of any campus’ CAP process: increasing the sustainability of a campus community, becoming carbon neutral as soon as possible.


Pathways to a Low-Carbon Campus

For more, see National Wildlife Federation’s Climate Action Planning guide, which shows how the time and energy invested in the process of planning for sustainability are well worth the return.

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Published: February 24, 2009