DU’s Sustainability Plan: Carbon Neutral by 2050
As a participant in the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, the University of Denver has resolved to shrink its carbon footprint dramatically. In fact, in spring 2009, DU’s Sustainability Council, the organization charged with helping the institution advance its green goals, unveiled a plan that calls for DU to reach zero net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Approved by the University’s Board of Trustees in June, the plan is paced to spur change in a cost-effective way, said Federico Cheever, a professor at the Sturm College of Law and chair of the Sustainability Council during 2008–2009. Although the University could achieve zero net emissions before 2050, haste might result in costs that far exceed savings. If a long-term program is to be sustainable itself, and if the University is to lead the private sector in this critical area, it has to construct a plan that is cost-effective and efficient.
Although the University already had made efforts toward reducing its carbon footprint before Chancellor Robert Coombe signed the climate commitment in 2007, his doing so accelerated these efforts. The new sustainability plan calls for half of DU’s energy savings to come from energy conservation. “The cheapest unit of energy that’s going to emit the least amount of carbon dioxide is the energy you never have to buy,” Cheever explained. “And the second is the energy you never have to use. The point of consumption is the most effective place of conservation. It saves the cost of generation and transmission.”
Across campus, conservation measures are resulting in significant savings. In the Ritchie Center’s Hamilton Gymnasium, for example, the replacement of high-energy light bulbs with energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs resulted in energy savings of nearly 75 percent. In other buildings, thermostat adjustments also reduced energy consumption and boosted savings.
In coming years, the Sustainability Plan will benefit from efficiencies at utility companies and, possibly, the implementation of various forms of renewable energy on site. Xcel Energy, which provides much of the institution’s electric power, has committed to reducing its own carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050. The University will enhance these projected reductions with renewable energy, generated on and off site.
DU currently purchases wind-power credits sufficient to offset one-third of its emissions, 1,900 tons of carbon dioxide each year. The University is considering a strategy in which it becomes part of a multi-university Colorado consortium that invests in wind power.
On campus, DU is considering generating its own energy, most likely in the form of fuel cells within a co-generation facility to be housed in a new building. While the fuel cells are generating power for the building, they are also generating heat. Efficiency is gained through the facility's location on campus, which reduces the power lost through transmission across long distances.
DU may also purchase carbon credits. In the near future, carbon credits can be acquired from the Colorado Carbon Fund, through which the University can buy the right to emit a certain amount of carbon dioxide, safe in the knowledge that elsewhere in Colorado, another local source of carbon dioxide is being retired.
DU already has made significant progress creating new habits among faculty, staff and students. Beginning in fall 2008, the Sustainability Council placed 3,000 single-stream recycling bins in buildings across campus as part of its “Get Caught Green-Handed” campaign. As a result, DU now recycles an average of 21 tons of paper, glass, metal and plastic each month, up from a monthly average of 10 tons. The program has been so successful that custodians are called upon to empty individual office trash cans only occasionally.
Still another initiative aims to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases generated by automobiles. Mary Jean O’Malley and Zoee Turrill, student members of the Sustainability Council, helped formulate a campus bike-sharing pilot program, unveiled in spring 2009, that will complement a citywide program scheduled to launch in spring 2010. The DU program will circulate 20 special commuting bicycles among members of the campus community. (The city program is expected to feature 600 bikes and scores of pick-up and drop-off kiosks throughout Denver.) O’Malley and Turrill partnered with the city to host two of the kiosks. The two also raised $50,000 from academic departments, campus organizations and students to bring the bike program to DU.
To fulfill the University’s educational mission, the Sustainability Council created a highly customizable undergraduate minor in sustainability, which begins in fall 2009. The minor, available to students in most fields of study, will focus on the three pillars of sustainability: economic, social and environmental. A gateway course provides a common foundation, while a capstone course explores the connection among the three pillars to ensure that students benefit from interdisciplinary approaches to sustainability questions, either through collaborative research or community-based learning.
The Sustainability Council hopes to extend this academic initiative into graduate education. According to council member Mike Keables, associate dean of the Division of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, plans are under way for a broad, interdisciplinary program that will enlist faculty from the Sturm College of Law, the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, the Daniels College of Business and the traditional arts, humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and mathematics graduate programs.
The initiative may debut at the master’s level, but Keables anticipates interest in a doctoral program. Because so few institutions offer graduate education in sustainability, Keables considers this an opportunity for the University to break new ground.
Getting to carbon neutrality by 2050 will have its challenges, but the plan’s approach is conservative. Over the next 40 years, Cheever expects the University will benefit from new technologies. “We’re still guessing what technologies will be available at what cost. Since technology is rapidly improving, we’ll probably be able to do better,” he said.
But the University isn’t waiting for those new technologies to materialize before it adopts its own programs. Going forward, the Sustainability Council is considering four campaigns:
- a climate campaign focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions
- a livable urban campus campaign to ensure a high quality of life, despite increased density
- a mindful consumption campaign to educate the campus community about where things come from and where waste goes
- a sustainable education campaign to educate students about the new sustainable economies of the 21st century
“First and foremost, we are an educational institution. Everything we do, including reducing our carbon footprint, is about education,” Cheever explained. “Sustainability touches everything. It’s about chemistry and biology. It’s about law. It’s about community organization. It’s not just about reducing carbon emissions. It’s about doing everything we can to sustain a culture at DU—from consumption to teaching. We will involve students, and they will learn more about where energy use comes from and where the waste goes.”