College continues to make strides toward carbon neutrality

Although the 2017 Energy Challenge has come to an end, Allegheny College students, staff and administrators have not stopped in their efforts to continue on the path of making the school more sustainable and energy efficient.

Allegheny voluntarily completed an energy audit in collaboration with Siemens Energy Company and the Clinton Climate Initiative during the summer of 2008, and pledged to achieve a 20 percent reduction in energy by 2020 in 2011, partnering in the Better Buildings Challenge initiative.

“Around 2010, we said by the year 2020, we would commit to ensuring that every ton of carbon put into the atmosphere by the college would be absorbed some place else on the earth,” Chair and Professor of the Environmental Science Department Eric Pallant said. “That’s the commitment, and it seemed like a long way away in 2010.”

Pallant said roughly half of Allegheny’s emissions are currently accounted for.

“What we’ve done since 2010 is try our best to increase efficiency and conservation as much as possible,” Pallant said. “But, we have a big decision to make by 2020.”

Allegheny administration works to see that every building is sustainable and energy efficient in order to help reduce the carbon footprint of campus, according to Pallant. Pallant said there are a lot of sustainable efforts hidden throughout campus buildings.

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design is a green building rating system, and North Village I, II and Carr Hall are all LEED-certified on Allegheny’s campus. LEED Platinum is the best certification a building can possess, meaning that the building is eco-friendly.

The Vukovich Center for Communication Arts would have been LEED silver-certified, but Allegheny decided not to certify it because the college did not have the funds to pay for the certification, according to Pallant. Paying for LEED certification was built into the budgets of the other certified buildings on campus.

“LEED provides framework to create healthy, highly efficient and cost-saving green buildings,” according to the U.S. Green Building Council website. “LEED certification is a globally recognized symbol of sustainability achievement.”

Energy Star-certified buildings and plants are required to meet specific qualifications set by the Environmental Protection Agency, according to the Energy Star website.

“They use less energy, are less expensive to operate and cause fewer greenhouse gas emissions than their peers,” the website says.

Washing machines around campus are Energy Star-certified machines, and next year the administration is looking to buy energy efficient refrigerators for campus dormitories.

Geothermal heating and cooling, water management and organic food service are all efforts Allegheny has made to help campus sustainability. One hundred percent of paper products purchased by Allegheny are made from recycled materials, according to Pallant.

“The level of sustainability across all sectors of the college is exceptional,” Pallant said.

By agreeing to collaborate with the Siemens Energy Company and CCI, Allegheny has agreed to uphold certain responsibilities to make the campus more sustainable. The college has upheld these responsibilities by making buildings more energy efficient, at least LEED Silver-certified and Energy Star-certified, according to Sustainability Coordinator Kelly Boulton, ’02.

Boulton described another layer of commitment the college agreed to by pairing with the Department of Energy and the Better Buildings Challenge.

Better Buildings is a U.S. Department of Energy initiative dedicated to improving the lives of Americans through energy innovation in households, public buildings and industrial plants, according to the initiative’s website.

The Better Buildings Challenge was created by the Obama administration and invited a small group of schools to partner with them and work towards sustainable efforts and energy innovation. Allegheny was the only small liberal arts college to be invited and become a charter participant. The Better Buildings Challenge encourages schools to reduce their energy consumption by 20 percent.

“We committed to creating a climate action plan for what we were going to do now that we knew what our carbon footprint was,” Boulton said. “We voluntarily, as a community, uphold that, and we also set the date of 2020 on our own. That was not mandated to us,” Boulton said.

When Allegheny agreed to partner with the Better Buildings Challenge in 2011, Boulton said it worked perfectly with what the college was already doing in terms of sustainability.

Boulton had a conversation with officials from the Better Buildings Challenge this past month and asked what happens if Allegheny fails to meet its goal by 2020.

Pallant said Allegheny is far away from achieving its goal of neutrality by the year 2020 and said the majority of the energy used comes from electricity and heating.

“There’s no punitive action if we don’t. It’s not a problem,” Boulton said. “Mostly, the [Better Buildings Challenge] just wants people moving in the right direction, and we are moving in the right direction, and we’ll continue to really push that as much as we possibly can.”

One hundred percent of campus energy is generated by wind power purchased from Constellation Energy Group and the lines used to distribute energy is owned by Penelec, an energy company. The school also has an agreement to purchase renewable energy credits alongside every kilowatt hour consumed on campus, according to Boulton.

“When you plug into the wall, you don’t know where the energy is coming from,” Boulton said. “Some is from coal, some from natural gas, so we purchase the renewable energy credit which is a small, extra cost on top which allows us to support the renewable energy market.”

Boulton said she works with Chief Financial Officer and Treasurer Linda Wetsell to consider Allegheny’s options in terms of budgeting and sustainability.

“When you invest in carbon offsets, you don’t get anything except neutrality,” Boulton said. “Since our goal is carbon neutrality in 2020, we’re not looking to purchase those carbon offsets until we get to that point because it’s an annual cost based on your greenhouse gas inventory.”

Boulton and the administration are thinking about carbon offsets, making sure they have all of the information they need but do not plan on purchasing them unless they are required to.

“We’re constantly re-thinking what we are going to focus on,” Boulton said. “It’s boiler retrofits right now. We’re doing a fume hood analysis for Doane and Steffee because that could drastically reduce our energy consumption. We’re talking with an alum who has a new technology that might be able to reduce our energy consumption on all of our air conditioning. There’s a lot of different things that we are constantly looking into.”

The final decision to purchase carbon offsets will be  made by Executive Vice President Eileen Petula, the president and the board of trustees, according to Pallant. In his experience, Pallant said student opinion will matter a great deal, but he would like students to be as informed as possible about meeting the pros and cons that come with meeting the commitment.

“You have to have that commitment,” Petula said. “We’re actually doing very well. The commitment is there. No decision has been made to slow down or stop.”

Petula said donations are helpful when deciding how to pay for new projects on campus while working towards making Allegheny more sustainable. She said buying carbon offsets is the last thing she wants to do in order to become carbon neutral by 2020.

Pallant said we all have a price and explained that raising tuition is not a solution everyone can afford. He also said Allegheny has come far in its sustainable efforts because of student involvement.

Kristen Locy, ’18, is working with professors, staff and administrators to look into Allegheny’s options and carbon offsets. Although there is no formal consequence to not meeting the goal of neutrality by 2020, buying carbon offsets is not the method administrators would like to take, according to Petula.

Boulton said one of Allegheny’s strengths when it comes to sustainability is engaging with students. Students helped figure out how Allegheny could get its first LEED-certified building on campus during a junior seminar.

“They went through every single step which is a huge protracted thing,” Boulton said. “They worked with the architects and contractors, figured out how we could do that and we got certified … We try to think about who is interested in what, and we use that to give you a better education.”

When Boulton was a student at Allegheny she worked, in a class, with Pallant to put together a report to give to the college president, explaining the state of sustainability at Allegheny in comparison to other schools across the country. The class offered suggestions and possible paths for the school to take in order for it to remain on the forefront of sustainability.

“One of the things we suggested was to create a sustainability coordinator position,” Boulton said.

Encouraging students to stay in the local area is important, according to Boulton and Petula.

“I think this community resilience commitment that we’re pursuing now is going to open up a lot of doors,” Boulton said.

Petula said the college plans to continue on its journey of becoming more sustainable and finding new, innovative ways to work with students in order to make those goals a reality.

“I want to find ways that we help in our own community,” Petula said. “I think you are always just responsible and try to make the most responsible choice, but it is definitely a team effort.”

Pallant said student behavior is a big factor when it comes to achieving carbon neutrality, but he thinks the energy challenge helps change behavior because it makes the process more enjoyable.

“Being more environmental should be about better quality of life,” Pallant said. “I don’t want anybody to be freezing in the dark. I want them to come to this party because the music is acoustic, the dancing is great and the food is local, organic and homemade. Who doesn’t want to join that revolution?”