Maybe they're doing it to save money. Maybe they're doing it because someone somewhere in the administrative hierarchy really cares about the university's social and environmental impacts. Maybe they're doing it because their students demanded it. Maybe it's for advertising or prestige. Whatever the reason—and at different moments it's been for each of these reasons and more—the current buzzword for universities nationwide is "sustainability."
Area universities are no exception to the trend. Duke, UNC, N.C. State and N.C. Central universities are incorporating more sustainable practices, ranging from green purchasing and recycling to composting in the dining halls.
Duke's major efforts coalesce around the Climate Action Plan, recently approved by the Board of Trustees last October. The Climate Action Plan directs the university to be "carbon neutral" by 2024, with a goal of "carbon zero" in 2040 and beyond. The distinction is important: If all goes according to plan, in 2024 Duke will still emit a significant amount of carbon dioxide—45 percent of 2007 levels—but plans to offset this by local carbon reduction programs such as swine waste reclamation and forest management. The ultimate goal is cut 88 percent of 2007 levels of carbon emissions by 2050.
2024 may seem far off, but Casey Roe, sustainability outreach coordinator at Duke, says that it's "an ambitious date compared to what other schools are choosing." The Climate Action Plan anticipates fairly significant carbon emission reductions—nearly a quarter—within five years.
Duke hopes the local focus of its carbon-offset programs will distinguish it from initiatives at other universities. "We want to do something local that impacts the community positively," explains Roe. "Our offset initiative is something not a lot of other schools are going to have. That might be something we emerge as a leader in."
The focus of emissions cuts is on transportation, energy efficiency and behavioral change. The first two areas—the biggest source of Duke's carbon emissions—can be controlled through policy changes like building greener buildings and purchasing non-emissions vehicles.
But changing the culture at Duke is harder. Sustainable Duke's efforts are organized around the online "Green Devil Challenge" pledge, in which Duke students, faculty and staff promise to reduce their carbon footprint and encourage their friends and family to do the same. Some 5,500 people on campus have taken the pledge—a small chunk of the tens of thousands of people who live and work at Duke.
Each month, those who take the pledge will receive an e-mail from the Sustainable Duke office with a new "challenge" to reduce their carbon emissions. The first challenge, released in February, asked participants to use a specially designed Carbon Calculator to figure their percentage of Duke's overall carbon footprint. This calculator is unique in that one of its modules is specifically directed at dormitory living.
Pledge participants receive e-mails through a sustainability listserv, while the carbon calculator results allows them to benchmark the results of the monthly challenges. It also allows for direct communication with the campus community, including, of course, climate change deniers. "Obviously, it can be somewhat of a politically charged issue," Roe said, "but to get two negative e-mails back out of 40,000, people we're doing pretty good, and there's pretty good support behind it."
At N.C. Central, the campus is not only recycling more waste, but reducing the amount it generates. For example, plastics, glass and metals used in the art studios are reused for new projects. The university is also analyzing its waste to minimize the amount going to the landfill.
N.C. State is the home of the Solar Center, which studies and develops renewable energy sources including solar, wind and biomass. However, the sustainability office began just two years ago with an aggressive plan for the campus.
The N.C. State Office of Sustainability is working on two long-term plans: the Climate Action Plan (which takes a 30–40 year view) and the Sustainability Strategic Plan (which projects plans over the next five years). Working groups in seven areas—transportation, energy and water, academics and research, materials and purchasing, waste reduction and recycling, buildings, and land use—have been meeting since the fall. All 10 colleges at NCSU are involved, as well as upward of 80 campus departments. Both plans are expected to be completed and presented to the Board of Trustees by spring 2011.
Meanwhile, N.C. State is launching other sustainable initiatives. A campus bikeshare program, Wolfwheels, began in March, and a certification program for green events is being developed. But the biggest sustainability effort on campus is a $19.7 million contract to retrofit 13 buildings on campus with energy-efficient systems.
The unique financing structure of the project means "it does not cost the taxpayer of North Carolina a dime to do this," explains David Dean, outreach and communications coordinator for sustainability and energy at N.C. State.
The contractor, Schneider Electric, will change heating and air-conditioning systems and controls, water conservation, and lighting systems. These adjustments are projected to save $33 million in energy costs over 20 years. Schneider will be paid first out of these savings, $19.7 million for the work and $13 million in interest; subsequent savings will be retained by NCSU.
Work on the first 13 buildings should be completed in about a year. At that time, about 10 more buildings will be considered for additional retrofitting.
"We don't have many other options because the money is simply not there to pay for a $19.7 million project like this," Dean explained. "The project was described at a meeting with the governor and she loved it, and encouraged other state institutions to follow our lead on this."
NCSU is also working on converting a campus steam plant to a combined heat/power plant that uses natural gas. It will eventually provide energy and chilled water to roughly 30 percent of the campus and is projected to save $12 million–$15 million on the university's electric bill through the reclamation of waste heat and water.
At UNC, the Sustainability Office asks students to go "Carolina Green," and those who take the commitment pledge receive a reusable water bottle emblazoned with a Tar Heel and green leaf—giving the program wide visibility. The idea is to create a sense of a community in sustainability projects, says Brian Cain, research and outreach manager for the UNC Sustainability Office.
The Sustainability Office has also created a campus "Green Pages" with contact information for all sustainability programs at UNC. The office will also certify as "Carolina Green" campus locations and events that meet a threshold for sustainability practice
"I don't have to do a lot of outreach to the people who already feel sustainability is important," he says. "They're most likely already taking steps. It's our challenge to link them to other folks who have never heard of sustainability." A key example is UNC's recent water reclamation system, which will save more than 210 million gallons annually. "In times of drought people are called to act. It's our challenge to get people to keep those actions even when the drought is over.
"We try to borrow and build from good ideas from each other," says Cain of his colleagues at Duke, Raleigh's NCSU, and elsewhere. "I'd like to see in the future more of that sense of competition and collaboration."