college campus

Moving Toward Sustainability: How College Campuses Are Working to Reduce Energy Consumption

An increasing number of universities are making an effort to improve sustainability and energy efficiency on their campuses, here's how you can follow suit.

Colleges and universities are increasingly recognizing the importance of sustainability and reducing energy consumption on their campuses. With the urgency of climate change, many institutions are taking action to lessen their environmental impact and demonstrate leadership in sustainable practices. Did you know that more than 76% of all U.S. electricity use and more than 40% of all U.S. primary energy use and associated GHG emissions come from the buildings sector? There are more than 4,000 colleges in the United States and each university campus is comprised of dozens, if not hundreds, of buildings that require constant energy to heat and cool them. Simple math tells us there is a big opportunity for universities to make an effort on energy efficiency improvements. 

From implementing energy-efficient technologies to promoting sustainable behaviors among students and staff, there are a variety of approaches being taken by college campuses across the nation. In this blog, we will explore some of the innovative ways that college campuses are working to reduce their energy consumption, become "green,"  and move toward a more sustainable future.

What Making A University "Green"? 

We've all heard of "Campuses going green," but what exactly does "green" mean?

A green campus is simply a college that has become environmentally sustainable or has implemented various methods to get there. These institutions strive to integrate sustainable practices into all aspects of campus life, from building design and energy use to transportation and waste management.

A green university might implement renewable energy sources, such as solar or wind power, on campus or require eco-friendly building standards for new construction. These universities may also offer sustainability-focused courses and promote eco-conscious behaviors among students and staff. Green universities aim to minimize their negative impact on the environment while equipping students with the knowledge and skills to create a more sustainable future.

Stay Educated: Learning About CO2 & the Environment

Climate change poses many threats to the world and the biggest way we can work to reduce those threats is by reducing CO2 output and the impact it has on the environment. According to the U.S. Energy Information Association, colleges consume an average of 18.9 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity and 17 cubic feet of natural gas per square foot of floorspace each year, contributing to the average 50,000 square foot campus building consuming more than $100,000 worth of energy annually. And with the opportunity to save nearly 30% or more by implementing cost-effective energy efficiency measures, the need to stay up-to-date on changing factors legislation is needed. 

Students and staff looking to contribute to environmental initiatives should thoroughly understand the issue at hand, where they can go to for resources on improving sustainability, and know what associations and groups are available when seeking out these changes. 

What Factors Impact University Carbon Production?

Just like commercial and residential buildings, university buildings require constant energy to heat, ventilate, air-condition, cool, and light them. Unfortunately, no matter the kind of building you're in, nearly 30% of the energy used to keep it comfortable will be wasted. And depending on their fuel source, universities may contribute vastly different amounts of greenhouse gases and other pollutants, making it difficult to measure and make comparisons against other universities or campuses. 

Along with building energy usage and waste generation, campuses produce GHG through transportation services, energy-intensive off-campus programs, food and agriculture,  and student and staff commuters. Knowing where there are opportunities for energy efficiency improvements is beneficial to university leaders and energy managers as they work toward meeting their energy efficiency goals. 

Natural Gas End Uses and Electricity End Uses On College Campuses via The U.S. Energy Information Association

Sustainability Associations for Universities  

As the number of climate initiatives across the country has increased, so has the number of available resource groups available to support the cause. Recent studies have shown that nearly 75% of students say a college's environmental commitment would affect their decision to attend a school or not, pushing institutions to focus on sustainability on their campuses. 

Here is a list of five resource organizations for facilities operations, environment, and sustainability that work with universities to meet their sustainability goals. 

AASHE: The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education

The AASHE is a membership-based association launched in 2006, designed to support colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada that are on a mission to promote sustainability on their campuses. AASHE offers a range of resources and services, including sustainability assessments, professional development, and more. 

HEASC: Higher Education Associations Sustainability Consortium

The HEASC is a network of higher education associations with a commitment to advancing sustainability within their institutions. They offer online resources that provide sustainability tools, resources, and case studies. 

Second Nature

This organization is advancing climate neutrality by mobilizing higher education institutions to create innovative climate solutions. They have worked with over 4,000 faculty and admin at hundreds of colleges and universities. 

Association of University Leaders for a Sustainable Future (ULSF)

The ULSF is a group designed to support sustainability as a critical focus of teaching, research, operations, and outreach at colleges and universities. ULSF represents over 500 universities in more than 50 countries. 

United States Green Building Council (USGBC) 

The USGBC has created a Center for Green Schools advancing and providing resources to create sustainable, healthy, resilient, and equitable learning environments. They are driving the green school movement by working directly with colleges and universities implementing sustainability. 

5 Colleges Working Toward Sustainability 

Resource groups are great for colleges that are already working on putting sustainability measures in place. Here are five colleges and universities that have been going green and what they've been doing to reduce their environmental impact and decrease pollution. 

These schools are featured in The Princeton Review's list of Top 50 Green Colleges and focuses on their strategies to be a top green school in the united states. 

College of the Atlantic 

The College of the Atlantic (COA) has been a longtime leader in sustainability in higher education. COA was the first college in the United States to become carbon-neutral in 2007 through a combination of energy efficiency measures, on-site renewable resources, and carbon offsets. Since then the college has been engaging students in a comprehensive, experiential educational approach to every aspect of sustainability, especially in eliminating the world's reliance on fossil fuels. 

COA has adopted a "Zero Waste by 2025" initiative which aims to eliminate waste sent to landfills and incinerators, continuing their commitment to the environment and carbon reduction.

Dickinson College 

Dickinson College

In 2020, Dickinson College in Pennsylvania achieved carbon neutrality after more than a decade of extensive sustainability efforts. They are one of the first ten colleges or universities in the nation to achieve this feat. 

Dickinson College's journey to carbon neutrality started in 2007 when they were one of the first twenty institutions to sign the American College and University President's Climate Commitment, now called the Carbon Commitment, committing them to: 

- Integrating climate change and sustainability into the curriculum 

- Measuring and reporting greenhouse gas emissions

- Adopting and implementing a Climate Action Plan

-Achieving a 25% reduction in GHG emissions by 2020 

- Making deeper cuts in emissions by 2025 and 2030.  

University of Vermont

University of Vernmont, Residence Halls

The University of Vermont (UVM) has been recognized as a green college due to its ongoing efforts to reduce its environmental impact and promote sustainability. Plus, UVM has set ambitious goals, hoping to achieve carbon neutrality by 2025 and divert 90% of its waste from landfills by 2025. 

UVM has made significant strides to achieve its goals, reporting a reduction of GHG by 23% since 2011. By implementing a range of waste reduction and composting programs, UVM has also been able to contribute to waste diversion goals and land itself on the Post-Landfill Action Network's (PLAN) Top 10 Zero Waste Campuses

Colorado State University

The Oval, Colorado State University

Colorado State University has been noted as a leader in sustainability through its world-class campus-wide school, the School of Global Environmental Sustainability, which addresses environmental challenges on a global scale. The school offers over 700 courses focused on sustainability and environmental studies.

Their strong commitment to sustainability has put CSU on the path to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 and has made progress toward the goal, by reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 14% since 2005. CSU has also invested in renewable energy by constructing a 5.3-megawatt solar plant that provides 10% of the university's annual electricity needs. 

Stanford University

Stanford University was recently recognized with best practice awards by the California Higher Education Sustainability Conference (CHESC) due to its efforts to reduce its environmental impact. Stanford has achieved a Platinum rating in the STARS of the AASHE, recognizing its achievements in sustainability across areas such as operations, academics, engagement, planning, administration, innovation, and leadership. 

Stanford is an academic leader in the world of environmental impact, the Doerr School of Sustainability draws on deep understanding of Earth, climate, and society to create solutions at a global scale. Another of the university's notable sustainability achievements is its use of solar energy, with on-campus and off-campus solar installations accounting for 67.44% of the campus's total energy consumption. 

Next Steps for Improving Energy Efficiency At Universities 

With an increasing number of universities going green, the tactics they use will be reliant on the current systems they have in place and how they should be optimized for energy efficiency. These systems include lighting, heating, cooling, plumbing, and many others. As campus leaders decide on the best measures to put in place, they can begin to explore additional resources and technology for energy efficiency purposes. New technology such as machine learning for HVAC optimization helps facilities managers and sustainability leaders directly reduce building emissions and energy costs.

Click here to schedule a 30-minute demo of Beacon AI and receive a site-specific savings estimate.

Ruth Favela
Ruth Favela
March 8, 2023