2020: the year Allegheny achieves climate neutrality

Tyler Stigall, Science and International Editor

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Under President Richard Cook in 2007, Allegheny College signed the American College and University President’s Climate Commitment, overseen by the nonprofit organization Second Nature. The goal was set for the college to achieve climate neutrality—or a net zero carbon footprint—by the year 2020.

Now, about nine years later, the college is about 71 percent of the way toward achieving this goal, according to Sustainability Coordinator Kelly Boulton, ’02.

Linda Wetsell, chief financial officer of Allegheny and Boulton’s direct supervisor, is optimistic about the prospects of reaching total climate neutrality by 2020.

“I think we have that option, and that neutrality can be attained,” said Wetsell.

Every year, Boulton conducts a greenhouse gas inventory to measure the college’s carbon footprint. This report measures energy, paper consumption, water consumption and waste among other things.

And over the past eight years, according to Boulton, the college has been slowly trying to reduce that footprint through efficiency measures, making changes to contracts with third parties and minimizing waste.

Boulton reports her findings to the Finances and Facilities Committee, the on-campus committee made up of administration, faculty, staff and students responsible for determining general financial planning policies at Allegheny.

A good deal of efficiency can be found simply by retrofitting, renovating or replacing old, worn out equipment, according to Cliff Willis, director of Physical Plant at Allegheny.

“Correcting infrastructure is always one of our main tasks,” said Willis. “[Physical Plant has] aggressive preventative maintenance programs and we are often able to extend their useful lifetime. But as time goes on, performance level decreases. If a piece of equipment is 95 percent efficient, it does not stay at 95 percent until it stops working.”

Boulton said, as an example, that many of the older boilers used to heat buildings around Allegheny were found to be about 60 percent efficient, meaning that 40 percent of the heat generated was lost to the environment. Boulton said after retrofitting the boilers, many returned to 97 percent operational efficiency.

More efficient mechanical equipment means spending less money on energy in order to generate sufficient heat. Normally, the energy required to run systems would stem from a variety of sources, including coal, nuclear, solar and wind-powered energy systems, many of which are considered environmentally harmful.

But Allegheny has found a way to ensure that even its energy bill comes from clean sources. According to Boulton, after setting the climate neutrality goal, the college signed a contract to determine from which energy companies it drew its electricity. While reviewing the options, Boulton considered the cost of purchasing renewable energy credits.

“Renewable energy credits are a way for the market to avow institutions or individuals to choose to support renewably-generated electricity,” said Boulton. “So we did purchase renewable energy credits alongside typical kilowatt-hours, and so 100 percent of our energy is actually supporting wind-generated sources.”

Boulton said Allegheny does not have wind turbines on campus, but the college’s electricity is ultimately sourced out of a national grid, and determining exactly which wind turbines our energy is generated at is extremely difficult, according to Boulton.

“But our money is supporting the renewable sector,” said Boulton.

Many of the efforts to create a sustainable campus go beyond upgrading old equipment or tapping into pre-existing sustainable sources. In some cases, Boulton works with Physical Plant to construct new systems around campus that would ultimately lead to energy efficiency.

For example, beneath the lawn in front of North Village 1, deep underground, are buried pipes no more than a foot wide carrying earth-friendly antifreeze. This liquid carries the temperature of the earth into the heating and cooling systems of the surrounding buildings.

According to Boulton, this system, known as geothermal heating, acts as a heating and cooling system for North Village 1 and 2, as well as the admissions building. The pipes run about 500 feet into the earth, where the temperature is fairly constant—between 50 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit—and a device called a heat exchanger uses this temperature to heat or cool the air within a building.

In this respect, the two North Villages represent some of the many ways that Allegheny is changing how it builds its infrastructure, said Boulton.

While geothermal systems beat traditional heating and cooling—which use outside air—in efficiency, they often require more money and space, at least in the short-term.

“The problem is, unless you are doing a significant renovation, the payback period is significantly long,” said Willis.

Ideally, in any engineering project geared toward energy efficiency, an institution wants its savings over time to pay for the cost of the project, according to Willis. The period of time before that happens is called the payback period. And a typical payback period in the energy business, according to Willis, lasts around three to three and a half years.

“Often, the payback period of geothermal heating, without other significant changes or constructing a new building, can last up to 17 to 20 years,” said Willis. “You also need a sufficient area around the building to drill wells.”

Despite the potential costs, the college is considering implementing geothermal systems for other buildings around campus, including Bentley, according to Willis.

Nearly every physical aspect of the campus has been under review for a potential to increase efficiency or minimize waste.

Some of these efforts include a campus-wide campaign to transition from incandescent light bulbs to T8 fluorescent tubes; the use of sustainable, synthetic-based lubricating products, as opposed to petroleum-based ones; paint that contains low or no levels of VOC (volatile organic compounds); recyclable carpet material; and asbestos-free, non-vinyl composition tiles for floors.

While these efforts have been able to reduce Allegheny’s carbon footprint drastically, the college still has to contend with the energy demands of heating buildings during a typical winter in northwest Pennsylvania.

Natural gas consumption from heating systems and basic vehicle transportation is still unavoidable. To contend with this chunk of Allegheny’s carbon footprint, the college is considering an alternative option to physical renovations: purchasing carbon offsets.

Carbon offsets are essentially investments into systems that take carbon from the atmosphere, to balance whatever unavoidable emissions that one produces. Say an institution produces a set amount of metric tons of carbon dioxide per month. A third party can calculate how many trees are required to pull the same amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The institution can then pay to have those trees planted.

And planting trees is just one example. Boulton and her colleagues are also considering investing in the Meadville community to help low-income houses and non-profit organizations become more sustainable, although no official plan has been made yet.

Energy efficiency, while vital to achieving climate neutrality, is not the college’s only goal. Food sources, like energy sources, have also been a target area of improvement.

According to Boulton, Allegheny added to their contract with Parkhurst that 20 to 30 percent of the food they provide would come from local sources. Since Parkhurst is a company based out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, this “local” stipulation is defined as an area up to 150 miles around Pittsburgh. Since implementing the program in 2008, Parkhurst has consistently met this goal.

The idea of incorporating a local community into sustainability goals has also passed into the original contract: this year, according to Boulton, Second Nature added a layer of commitment called the Community Resiliency Commitment, which Allegheny decided to sign as a charter signatory.

“Up until this point, our climate neutrality goal has focused very much on just our institution. But any time you talk about real sustainability, you have recognize where your institution sits in a community,” said Boulton. “If we reached climate neutrality by 2020 and become a sustainable institution, it would mean next to nothing if Meadville is not also a sustainable, resilient community.”

The perspective of the Community Resiliency Commitment is that any economic or energy-related crisis that occurred in Meadville would affect Allegheny as well.

“So the Community Resiliency goal is to think about how an institution is just one component of a strong community,” said Boulton.

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