By Bob Best
Ask almost any college or university president, and they’ll tell you that the journey to carbon neutrality is well underway on their campus. The movement has picked up steam as university leaders recognize the importance of campus sustainability as a major factor in student recruitment. They are unlikely to deter from this path even as the current Administration opts out of the Paris Climate Agreement.
Across industries and across the globe, facility management executives have been rising to the challenge of climate change for decades. In particular, universities have a special need to address climate change, as students are often particularly interested in environmental issues. Apparently, many university presidents recognize their role in advancing sustainability goals. According to The New York Times (6/1/2017), more than 80 university presidents plan to directly submit their school’s carbon reduction plans to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Of course, facility management professionals do not need an international agreement to start — or continue on — the path to reducing campus carbon footprint. The terrain for this journey isn’t as difficult as it used to be. A vast array of solutions and technologies are available to help campuses achieve carbon neutrality and be leaders in the national movement toward a sustainable future.
#1. Commit to ongoing stakeholder engagement.
Pursuit of carbon neutrality requires both resources and commitment to change — not only to kick-start the initiative, but also to keep it rolling. You’ll need the vision and strong support of campus leadership to inspire staff, faculty, and students, and insist that your campus support energy conservation, recycling, and other environmental efforts.
#2. Take advantage of no- or low-cost measures to further success.
If your campus is like most, you launched a self-sustaining recycling program years ago as a first step toward carbon neutrality. The road to carbon neutrality can include many other no-cost or low-cost possibilities for achieving substantive carbon-footprint reductions.
Take recycling one step further with a “trash-to-cash” program, selling waste to willing buyers, or create “single stream” recycling in which recyclable items are not separated. Reduce waste with a plastic bottle ban.
Campuses can reduce water usage with conservation strategies and recycling water for use in landscapes, sports fields, chillers, laundry, and more. Schools in drought-prone areas can use landscaping to minimize the need for watering and maximize water retention.
#3. Create, enforce and update campus-wide environmental policies and programs.
Campus energy and environmental policies formalize and strengthen commitments, and empower those who are charged with achieving them. Policies can be as broad as expressing the institutional goal of reducing energy usage by 20%, or as detailed as specifying target seasonal heating and cooling temperatures, or both.
#4. Don’t focus on low-hanging fruit at the expense of longer-term actions.
Too much emphasis on today’s quick wins and “low-hanging fruit” can erode resources for larger and more meaningful investments. Resources may fade away if it appears, however superficially, that additional investment is not essential.
#5. Avoid “point chasing” tactics and focus on outcomes.
If you are looking at renovations, upgrades, or new construction as part of a carbon neutrality plan, you may be considering achieving LEED, Green Globes, or other certifications. As appealing as these certifications may be, the narrow pursuit of certification points can overshadow the larger goals of energy conservation, environmental sustainability, and building functionality. Rather than focusing solely on certifications, strive for continuous improvement and a holistic view.
#6. Use benchmarking to guide campus-wide and individual initiatives.
Benchmarking an organization’s sustainability practices and results against its peers is commonplace in private industry for prioritizing investments and showcasing results to stakeholders. Some colleges and institutions are adopting this approach as well.
Facility management can benchmark outcomes for the campus as a whole and for each individual building to identify areas of performance concern. Campus-wide areas to benchmark might include university policies, targets, monitoring, and communications related to energy, water, waste, resource use, fleet management, purchasing, and transportation. Individual building benchmarks will vary depending on the uses, whether residences, classrooms, offices, sports facilities, libraries, or laboratories.
#7. Wrap energy conservation initiatives into capital planning.
In many colleges and universities, deferred maintenance is the elephant in the room that grows larger over time as aging buildings continue to decline. An estimated 40% of campus space was rapidly constructed between 1960 and 1975 to accommodate the Baby Boomer generation’s pursuit of higher education, with little regard to longevity and energy efficiency. According to a 2015 study by the University of New Hampshire, institutions that have shifted their capital investments to building exteriors, mechanical systems, and utility infrastructure have made the most progress toward reducing GHG emissions and energy usage.
#8. Adopt smart building technologies.
Smart buildings tend to be more energy efficient and comfortable than those with legacy systems, through precise regulation of building systems. Energy savings also come from operational efficiencies related to continuous “commissioning,” or fine-tuning of building systems, along with ongoing detection, diagnoses and resolution of equipment issues, and preventive maintenance. Using a Web-based portal, facility executives can track utility billing data, including submeter data, and other metrics to inform detailed greenhouse gas reporting, better capital planning, and business cases for additional energy conservation investments.
#9. Explore renewables.
Renewable energy sources can complement other strategies to eliminate the carbon emission deficit after many other energy saving measures have been implemented. The cost of renewables is falling dramatically in many areas and, in some locations, is now on par with the cost of conventional energy sources.
For example, the University of California is using a $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to build a net-zero-energy community (where renewable energy will offset conventional energy use) for an estimated 3,000 residents on its 130-acre West Village Davis campus.
#10. Make your efforts visible on campus.
Marketing energy or sustainability efforts by demonstrating commitment and steady progress, as evidenced through improved scores on AASHE’s STARS or other rating system, can also help to maintain top-level support. As you achieve progress in reducing campus carbon footprint, your institution can enhance both its brand and the bottom line by documenting and sharing its journey to carbon neutrality. That’s a journey worth enjoying, every step of the way.
Best directs energy and sustainability services for JLL’s clients, with responsibilities that include new business development, energy reduction programs, client sustainability efforts, performance metrics, operating standards, and training. He is a LEED Accredited Professional through the U.S. Green Building Council and a Green Globes Professional through the Green Building Initiative.