ALBANY — The state of New York’s goal by the year 2050 is to switch to a carbon-neutral economy — eliminate almost all carbon dioxide emissions and offset the remainder.
The target set by Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been applauded by some environmentalists for its ambitious vision but doubted by some scientists and business leaders as difficult or impossible to accomplish with current technology and costs, especially across a diverse state of 19.5 million people.
The University at Albany is gearing up to chase net-zero carbon-neutral status, but on a much more manageable scale. The campus is essentially a compactly built city of 20,000 people, with no jet engines or cement kilns or other massive carbon generators with no easy green replacements.
UAlbany last month received a $2 million grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority to plan how to go net zero. It won’t be quick or easy, and the price tag won’t be known until the plan is complete. Nor is funding for the project secured.
But it can be done. Colgate, a much smaller private college in central New York, last year became the first university in the state to achieve carbon neutrality.
It had a carbon footprint of 17,353 tons in 2009 when it hired its first director of sustainability, signed the Second Nature Carbon Commitment and set a goal of zero tons of carbon emissions.
Colgate reached the finish line through such means as using locally sourced food, creating a carbon offset and research program, building solar arrays, adding sustainable forest management, installing geothermal heating and cooling, creating a green revolving loan fund and making upgrades to its biomass boiler.
Indu, the University at Albany’s energy officer, said the school is working on a 30-year time frame compared to Colgate’s ten years. So there will be more time to research solutions, wait for new technology to gain widespread use and come down in cost, and secure funding.
Indu, who has only one name, has the mission of reducing energy usage and carbon footprint of the campus. She prefers the term “carbon-neutral” because “net zero” implies all electricity will be generated on site, which isn’t feasible given the size and location of the campus. Rather, some of the carbon footprint of the campus must be neutralized through off-campus means.
But the two terms are often used interchangeably, and “net zero” is the official designation of the project.
She gave The Daily Gazette an overview; questions and answers are edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: How will UAlbany devise a strategy to achieve net zero carbon status?
A: By evaluating the effectiveness of steps can be taken — such as building improvements, mechanical/electrical upgrades, centralized heating/cooling with geothermal or heat recovery features, on- and off-site carbon-free power sources — as well as the cost and human impact of the strategy.
Q: What steps has UAlbany already taken toward this goal?
A: Through its Energy Master Plan and High-Performance Design Guidelines, the college has cut campus carbon emissions per square foot by 33 percent since 2008.
Q: What are the largest consumers of energy on campus?
A: Lab buildings are among the biggest users, along with heating, cooling, lighting and hot water.
Q: Which is more important — reducing energy use or using energy that has a reduced impact?
A: Both are critically important. The last decade has been focused on reducing energy use but UAlbany has begun working more to decarbonize its electricity, on-site and off-site.
Q: How does the university measure its carbon footprint?
A: Scope 1 is fuel for heat and vehicles, Scope 2 is electricity purchased, Scope 3 is everything else, including travel, commuting, food and waste. The total of all three was calculated at the equivalent of 57,500 metric tons of carbon dioxide for fiscal 2018-2019. The net zero project will address Scope 1 and Scope 2 (which totaled 39,511 metric tons) by reducing carbon emissions as much as possible and using zero-carbon energy sources. Scope 3 is largely beyond central control, as it is the result of actions of thousands of people on and off campus. So UAlbany will reduce Scope 3 as much as possible through a climate action and sustainability plan to be announced on Earth Day 2020. It will purchase offsets for whatever remains, until the university is carbon-neutral — with a footprint equal to zero tons of carbon dioxide.
Q: How will students factor into this?
A: Student interns will be part of the team undertaking the project planning. Also, the student body’s help will be needed to make the project a success. But the student body is becoming increasingly aware of the impact of global warming and has requested or demanded changes. UAlbany has found success in promoting sustainable behavior on campus and will continue to work to keep students engaged.
Q: Is it harder or easier to bring about change in a setting populated by a temporary part-time community such as a college campus, rather than the permanent full-time community in a small city?
A: Easier because there are more opportunities to engage and because the young adults are less set in their ways, more open to change. Harder because they are a transitory group, so the message must be delivered continually.
Q: Does the design of the campus or its urban setting impose any limits on what you can do?
A: There is not much room on campus for large-scale renewable energy projects. But climate solutions need to be thought of on a regional basis. We seek out collaborations to scale up efforts; UAlbany is already part of a 21-campus consortium to secure large-scale off-site sources of renewable energy.
Q: Do the design and location of the campus provide any opportunities?
A: It provides the opportunity to develop a solution that works and replicate it on a larger scale. One goal of the project is to see what sources of emissions UAlbany can mitigate by itself and which ones need regional solutions.
CHALLENGES AND BARRIERS
Assisting in the campus net zero project will be Richard Perez, a senior researcher at UAlbany’s Atmospheric Sciences Research Center.
In the drive to carbon neutrality, he said, what happens off campus will be as important as what happens on campus because the college will always rely on electricity generated off-site. The obstacles that must be overcome so that there is enough clean energy to do this are more political and practical than technological, he said.
“They are going to acquire a large amount of solar power at a reasonable cost,” Perez said. “Nothing needs to be invented for that to happen. This is almost business as usual.”
And that is the challenge for any net zero campaign: The transition away from electricity generated by burning carbon has been slow and expensive, and has encountered pushback at multiple levels.
Development of land-based wind power has slowed in New York, and Gov. Cuomo’s proposal for a massive wind farm off the coast of Long Island is still in its earliest stages. Meanwhile, local resistance to new solar arrays has grown stronger.
Perez will be making the case for solar at the Sensible Solar Summit from 4 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at Christ Episcopal Church in Duanesburg, where town leaders recently enacted a moratorium on large-scale solar farms amid resident opposition to two 5-megawatt solar arrays proposed in town.
Perez has worked extensively in solar power research, including ways to integrate electricity from solar farms into the power grid, which is not optimally designed to take intermittent power production from numerous widely distributed sources.
Because wind and sunlight are both so variable, power generation from these sources will need to be overbuilt, and/or supplemented with storage units, which ratchets up the project cost, Perez said.
So the ongoing drive to efficiency is critical, he said. The school uses 69 million kilowatt hours of electricity a year.
“On the demand side, every step helps,” he said.
ROUNDUP OF GREEN INITIATIVES
The University at Albany is by far the largest Capital Region college but it is far from alone in seeking to improve its energy efficiency. Here are some steps being taken by other area schools:
Paul Stec, Siena College’s vice president for finance and administration, said the Loudonville college has cut its electricity use from 14 million kilowatt-hours in 2005 to 11 million in 2019 and its overall energy bill from $3 million to $1.7 million in the same period.
A combination of factors led to the green gain: Improving existing structures, carefully planning construction and retrofits, and getting students on board with conservation initiatives.
“We try to talk to our students about what we can do,” Stec said. “It’s been a lot of behavioral practices.”
Many LED lights have been purchased and numerous investments made in boilers and electrical systems.
One challenge for Siena is that many of its buildings are about the same age, young enough to be in good shape but old enough to lag behind the latest standards of efficiency. Retrofitting them all at once would be prohibitively expensive, so the college keeps a scorecard on their condition and energy efficiency.
“We know where we stand on each building,” Stec said. “Each gets a letter grade on a 4-point scale.”
The buildings’ needs and shortcomings are addressed on a systematic basis.
Siena’s two newest buildings are the former State Police Troop G headquarters across Route 9 from the main campus. In their case, the college had to do a retrofit anyway, so it invested in energy efficiency along the way.
“Anything we do always thinks sustainability first and foremost,” Stec said.
Skidmore College has been listed in multiple best-of rankings for renewable energy usage and green campuses. Going green is listed as a priority in its Strategic Plan, which calls for the school to become an environmental laboratory, with increased emphasis on sustainable operation and reduced environmental footprint.
Ways this is happening include:
- Geothermal systems in 29 buildings that provide a full 35 percent of the heating/cooling for the campus.
- Skidmore’s own solar and hydro power facilities provide 9.4 percent and 9.3 percent of the campus’ electrical needs, respectively, and 21.3 percent of the remainder is sourced from off-campus renewable sources.
- Food waste is reduced and serving trays are banned in the dining hall, which uses locally sourced food and builds local farm partnerships.
- Progress is being made toward a goal of 60 percent diversion of waste to recycling streams by 2025.
- Fertilizer and pesticide use are reduced.
SUNY Cobleskill takes a four-pronged approach to shrinking its environmental impact: Reduce consumption where possible; make consumption efficient and sustainable; rely on cost-effective sources of energy; and generate what power it can on-site.
The college achieved a 19 percent reduction in energy consumption per square foot from July 2016 to November 2019. Daily energy cost was down 9.5 percent just in the last year, by means as simple as replacing lamps with more-efficient models. Through state/industry incentives, the college broke even on these investments in as little as three months.
In the last year, use of electricity on campus declined 3.5 percent, water 5.1 percent and carbon-based fuels 5.8 percent (diesel) to 24 percent (gasoline.)
Meanwhile, a new heat/power cogeneration system went online in January 2019; a 75-kilowatt solar array became operational; a 7.4 kilowatt micro-inverter solar array was added to the equine center; and two more on-campus solar arrays are planned for construction in 2020.
And finally, there is the rotary gasifier developed by a SUNY Cobleskill professor with support from federal grants, which turns combustible waste into a clean-burning biofuel and a soil supplement. Efforts are underway to commercialize the working model.
SUNY Schenectady is making extensive use of retrofits to increase its energy efficiency.
In recent years, the college:
- Replaced parking lot and sidewalk lights with LEDs;
- Installed solar lighting on its salt shed;
- Swapped out the light sources in illuminated signage and numerous ceiling fixtures;
- Replaced four old boilers in three buildings with high-efficiency units;
- Installed four energy-efficient elevators in Elston Hall.
- Began using environmentally friendly cleaning products throughout the campus and phasing in a new flooring material in the Stockade Building that requires no harsh chemicals for maintenance.
Schenectady’s Union College in 2007 was among the first schools to sign the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, and it later developed a long-term plan to become carbon-neutral by 2060. Steps taken so far:
- A campus committee oversees sustainability initiatives and is supported by student fees and presidential grants.
- Food is locally sourced and is prepared in a manner designed to reduce waste; what waste is created gets composted.
- Physical upgrades on campus have included cogeneration systems; high-efficiency boiler replacements; LED lighting retrofits; energy modeling; and setbacks on climate control and lighting.
- A robust recycling program for the standard paper/plastic/metal products is supplemented by electronic waste recycling and scrap metal recycling; during the 2019 RecycleMania competition among 300 campuses in 43 states, Union took first place in the Race to Zero Waste category.