More Aware and More Efficient, College Shrinks its Carbon Footprint
By Sarah Bertino '09 and Alyssa White '11
Arriving on campus for her first class of the day, a professor pumps up the thermostat in the seminar room to tame the morning chill. An hour later, the next professor to use the room walks in, fingers his collar in the heat and throws open a couple of windows. Outside, several students text and chat on cell phones, some of them to classmates within talking distance. After class, a few drop their soda cans and water bottles in the standard trash bin near the door. One student lingers in the room to copy some notes from the board, then races out to catch up with friends, leaving door and windows open and lights blazing. Another student walks to the parking lot and starts her car to get warm as she makes a few calls. Some in the class head to the dining hall, where they load up trays with burgers and other items they might want to sample. A few laptops come out as they settle in at a table. "Hey, I need to charge this thing," somebody says. "Anyone see an outlet?"
It's easy to think of campus operations as merely the "hardware" side of sustainability — buildings and boilers, classrooms and labs, electricity and exhaust — but as this scenario suggests, the ways energy is used and abused on campus have as much to do with habits and attitudes as with resources.
"Engineers and planners can only go so far," says Steve Bellona, associate vice president for facilities and planning. "It comes down to users, too. If we keep all the lights on and we don't close the windows and the doors, whatever I do as an engineer isn't going to matter.
"We not only have to build these facilities to be efficient, we then have to manage them to be efficient."
Hamilton has made remarkable strides on both sides of that equation in recent years. A growing awareness that environmental threats such as global warming and dwindling biodiversity are real and critical has pushed the institution toward sustained action. Green technology, improved construction and retrofitting methods, and a growing emphasis on long-term planning have enabled the College to measure, assess and begin to reduce its appetite for the fossil fuels that produce greenhouse gases. The goal is quickly to shrink, and ultimately to eliminate, Hamilton's "carbon footprint" — its total impact on the environment through the production of carbon dioxide and related emissions.
One key to that quest turns up in conversation after conversation: unity of purpose, a shared sense of mission. "It's not something 'they' do," says Brian Hansen, director of environmental protection, safety and sustainability. "It's something we all do."
From greenery to a Green Team
That process has began long before April 2007, when President Joan Hinde Stewart placed her signature on the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, which requires participating colleges both to take immediate steps and to establish long-term policies to become more carbon neutral. In a broad sense, Hamilton's environmental concerns can be traced from founder Samuel Kirkland's interest in the teaching of the best agricultural practices, to the first 19th-century efforts to design and landscape the campus, and through the modern evolution of the Root Glen and the Arboretum. "We've done a lot of things historically that have been green," says Karen Leach, who as vice president of administration and finance directs the College's Sustainability Committee.
But as the extent and long-term threat of climate change grew clear in recent decades, along with the risk of continued dependence on fossil fuels, Hamilton's environmental focus expanded to include the full range of campus operations. When planning began for the Science Center nearly a decade before its 2005 opening, provisions were made for a "Green Team" that would provide advice and monitor construction on the building. The team, comprising faculty members, students, staff and members of the architectural firm Einhorn Yaffee Prescott, was led by Douglas Weldon, director of the Neuroscience Program and the Stone Professor of Psychology. Weldon — at the time science curriculum and facilities coordinator — and his team created an exacting approach that would provide a model for future campus construction.
Heating and cooling for the Wellin Atrium in the state-of-the-art Science Center would be provided by an underground geothermal loop system. Wood in casework, millwork and lab furniture would meet the standards of the Forest Stewardship Council, with recycled materials such as tires and steel also widely used throughout the building. Fumes from laboratory hood exhaust would pass through heat recovery systems before being expelled from the building. Labs would be outfitted with occupancy sensors to minimize wasted lighting and air flow. Natural lighting and passive solar heat in the atrium would add to the building's overall energy efficiency.
Beyond the blueprints, the Science Center also embodied several ideas that would prove to have long-term environmental traction:
It symbolically melded architectural tradition and innovation, dramatically incorporating much of the façade of the original 1925 Science Building into the atrium. That is a balance that campus designers have continued to strike with the transformation of the former Saunders Hall of Chemistry into the Charlean and Wayland Blood Fitness and Dance Center, the refurbishing of Skenandoa House and Siuda House, the renovation of the Kirner-Johnson Building, and the future expansion of Emerson Literary Society.
It made environmentalism interactive. From the day the doors opened, a touch-screen kiosk in the Science Center atrium has been tracing energy use throughout the building, monitoring its effect on the environment and calculating the cost savings of its efficiency measures. Similar energy-monitoring systems online (www.hamilton.edu/dashboard) and, soon, in Kirner-Johnson allow members of the College community to track energy use across much of campus in real time.
It encouraged the Green Team and the College to think critically about rigorous environmental building standards such as the LEED (Leadership in Environmental Energy and Design) protocol developed by the U.S. Green Building Council. While Hamilton did not seek LEED certification for the Science Center, the standards helped the College articulate its own priorities. "At the least," Hansen says, "you incorporate LEED certification features," and the College has since moved to meet LEED standards on all major building projects.
A commitment to the future
With President Stewart's signing of the Climate Commitment in April 2007, the College created a standing Sustainability Committee to carry on the work pioneered by the original Green Team. Led by Leach, the vice president of administration and finance, and comprising faculty, staff and student representatives, the committee is charged with soliciting ideas, encouraging debate, monitoring progress and mapping a long-term Climate Action Plan in accordance with the Climate Commitment. Much of that work is handled by four subcommittees, which focus variously on adherence to LEED building and renovation guidelines; minimizing the use of hazardous materials and production of hazardous waste; procuring local products; and procuring products that are energy efficient and recyclable.
Irene Cornish, the College's director of auxiliary services and a member of the committee, describes the group as "the sounding board for all the ideas that are coming in," and she means it literally: "You always need to be pushing us," she tells the campus community. "If you hear things or see things at other schools, in your homes or hometowns, you can be eyes and ears for us." Many of the College's recent environmental measures involve procurement policy and are overseen by Cornish. For instance, Hamilton has adopted an energy-efficient appliance-purchasing policy that requires the purchase of Energy Star-certified products. And in the fall, the College began to use all-recycled office paper. "There used to be concerns" with the quality of recycled paper, Cornish says, but "the technology is better now." All major publications including the Alumni Review, long printed on papers containing recycled content, are now certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.
Similarly, Hamilton has quietly established itself as a leader in meeting government standards on the handling and disposing of hazardous materials, a labyrinth of regulations overseen by Hansen and his office. Hamilton was one of a handful of colleges to pass a recent EPA inspection with no violations or fines. "Meeting those dos and don'ts is the springboard to sustainability," Hansen says.
Additionally, the College began providing low-cost Zipcars to the campus and surrounding community last fall, augmenting Hamilton's Jitney and the regional bus service as an environmentally friendly alternative to keeping a car on campus.
Such achievements seldom get much notice around campus or in the media, Bellona notes, but they can have a dramatic cumulative effect. He points to the recent replacement of some electrical systems and light bulbs on campus that is saving 135,000 kilowatt-hours a year in electricity and costs — the equivalent of 96 metric tons of CO2 emissions. "These incremental steps matter," he says.
But another early step taken by the Sustainability Committee has drawn substantial attention, and for good reason. It was the demanding task of measuring, as precisely as possible, the reach of Hamilton's own carbon footprint.
Carbon emissions: A comprehensive inventory
As a signatory to the 2007 Climate Commitment, Hamilton was immediately required to take a comprehensive inventory of its carbon emissions. Compiling a truly complete list was a challenge, since there is a limit to how far back records of community energy use reach. In addition, some information — such as a campus-wide survey of employees' commuting and air-travel practices — is inevitably inexact. But the core data, from a variety of Physical Plant records, was reliable and precise: meter readings for electricity and natural gas, and receipts for fuel oils and gasoline.
The news was not good, but it has quickly improved:
- Between 2000 and 2007, Hamilton's gross carbon emissions climbed 26 per cent. In fiscal year 2000, the College's carbon footprint totaled 19,272 metric tons; in fiscal year 2007, the figure was 24,319 metric tons, the College's highest on record.
- In fiscal 2008, however — the first year under the Climate Commitment — total carbon emissions fell to about 24,182.
- That historic reversal comes despite the expansion of campus spaces and energy needs. In fact, the deeper numbers show that the College has been improving its energy performance per unit of space for some time. Between 2003 and 2008, campus building space — gross square footage — grew 13 percent, while carbon emissions increased just 9.8 percent.
Bellona attributes the turnaround in part to "improving the backdoor stuff, the mechanical systems and electrical systems." He points out that the Blood Fitness Center uses substantially less energy than it did as Saunders Hall, even though it is much larger. But, he adds, "the other aspect of it is that there's a larger sense of commitment and excitement as a whole in the community. It's not just about individuals anymore."
That awareness is crucial, because reducing Hamilton's carbon footprint — and humanity's as well — is not simply about minimizing direct emissions, things that can be seen and smelled at their sources, like heat and car exhaust. Most of Hamilton's emissions, like electricity, are actually indirect: They only appear off campus at places like power plants. Electrical usage is responsible for 45 percent of Hamilton's carbon emissions, while heating fuel accounts for another 27 percent. The remaining sources, in descending order, are air travel, gasoline usage from commuting and business travel, solid waste and refrigerants.
In signing the Climate Commitment, Hamilton took responsibility for all of its carbon emissions, not just the direct ones. The very invisibility of indirect emissions makes awareness an ongoing project. "We're educating each other about the possibilities," Leach says. "With people talking about issues, change is more likely to happen."
Hitting the switch: Electricity the key
It's not difficult to determine why electricity makes up so much of the Hamilton community's carbon footprint. For one thing, Hamilton spends most of its waking hours in electric light, particularly during its notorious winters. For another, all this electric light is supplemented by the almost constant use of devices such as computers and cell phones. Checking e-mail, making calls, typing papers and using online resources enhance living and learning at Hamilton, but they also contribute to global warming.
The environmental impact of electricity depends on the fuel that drives it. Burning oil, for instance, releases carbon dioxide; burning coal emits even more of this climate-warming compound. Nuclear, solar and wind power do not emit carbon dioxide, so from the perspective of preventing global warming, they are better choices. Like most institutions, Hamilton doesn't use just one of these options to fulfill its energy needs; it uses a mix of several fuels. By choosing these fuels wisely, it can minimize its carbon footprint.
The Sustainability Committee is working hard to do just that. In fiscal 2004, Hamilton began purchasing renewable energy; in fiscal 2007, it began to supplement these purchases by buying renewable energy credits (RECs). RECs provide "green certificates" stating that energy used to provide electricity came from renewable sources. As a result of these purchases, Hamilton runs on 19 percent renewable energy as of fiscal year 2009 — substantially higher than its immediate target of 15 percent set under the Climate Commitment.
But members of the committee stress that the Hamilton community, particularly students, would need to alter their energy-spending habits for any lasting impact on Hamilton's electricity use. Without a significant change in individual behavior, they say, a meaningful reduction in energy consumption is unlikely to sustain itself.
For this reason, as well as for financial reasons, the committee has leaned away from suggestions by students and others that Hamilton depend entirely on RECs to neutralize its carbon footprint. Since RECs don't require behavioral changes in the Hamilton community, they would not actually reduce the community's appetite for energy. Many committee members see more extensive purchase of RECs as a means of paying Hamilton's way out of its more inefficient energy practices rather than reforming those practices.
"The real change needs to be human behavioral change. It's easy to get environmental energy credits, but that does not change our energy consumption," Leach says.
"We want to sustain reduction. We don't want people to fall back into old habits."
Another long-term solution to Hamilton's electricity needs may already be in place, at least in rudimentary form. In November, the College began producing power from a wind turbine near Babbitt Residence Hall and a pair of solar arrays on the roofs of KJ and the Outdoor Leadership Center. Bellona estimates that the three systems will produce 50,000 kilowatt-hours annually — only a fraction of the College's needs, but a significant step toward exploiting renewable resources more fully.
Buildings: Halt the great escape
The first sustainable-construction effort at Hamilton was the creation of a solar-heated classroom in the 1970s. The Physics Department was looking to re-establish its astronomy program, and it was decided that a classroom would be needed adjacent to the Peters Observatory. The project was funded by Elihu Root III '36, and James Ring '51, now the Winslow Professor of Physics Emeritus, was involved with planning and construction.
"We had the idea for a classroom that would be heated by our nearest star: the sun," Ring said. "When we tested it, [the classroom] turned out to be extremely efficient considering the weather." With the opening of this classroom, Hamilton's commitment to the environment expanded to include an interest in alternative energy and efficiency as well as the general campus landscape. It was followed a few years later by a series of efficiency measurements — also directed by Ring — on all the buildings on the north side of campus. "Not surprisingly, they all turned out to be pretty inefficient," he recalls.
Those older buildings — residence halls and academic buildings, many of which date to the 19th century — are central to Hamilton's identity, tradition and charm. Some of them are also fondly remembered by many generations of alumni as freezers, hothouses and wind tunnels where "climate change" was what happened when one walked from one floor to another.
Such early efforts as Ring's helped establish a dual approach to building efficiency: First, planning and construction of all new buildings on campus must follow sustainable guidelines. Second, older buildings are now being monitored and renovated in order to reduce heat escape. Last year, windows of Couper Hall were replaced in order to reduce heat loss, while lighting was updated in Milbank Residence Hall. That process, Bellona and Ring point out, builds on itself; as more buildings are retrofitted with new windows, insulation and other measures, campus officials can monitor which renovations work best for which types of building and hone their approach accordingly. "We now have real-time sampling [of energy use] in 13 different buildings," Ring says. "That's going to be important for doing really good analysis."
For new and fully updated buildings, of course, the bar is set considerably higher. The creation of the Green Team in the '90s and the subsequent design of the Science Center led Hamilton eventually to adopt the LEED building standards that are now a cornerstone of the College's long-term planning as well as the 2007 Climate Commitment. Just three days before President Stewart signed the commitment, Hamilton unveiled its first LEED-certified building, the Skenandoa House residence hall. Built in 1922, the former Psi Upsilon house was rededicated in 2004 in honor of the Oneida chief and friend of founder Samuel Kirkland, and in 2006 the refurbished building earned the Silver LEED plaque — the oldest building in New York State to be so designated. The renovation includes a geothermal heating and cooling system that uses less than 39 percent of the energy required by a standard gas-fired system in a comparable residence hall of the same size. All Skenandoa's electrical power comes from sustainable energy sources as well.
Since then, several other buildings on campus have been renovated to LEED standards. The most recent is the Kirner-Johnson Building, the academic center of Kirkland College when it opened in 1968 and now the home of the social sciences, the Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center, the Nesbitt-Johnston Writing Center and the Oral Communication Center. The Phase One expansion of the KJ project was completed last summer, with additional refurbishing to be completed this year.
"The building is being transformed from an environmental disaster — all-electric heat, single-glazed windows — to a LEED-certified 'green' building," says Professor of Economics Christophre Georges, who was involved in planning the renovations. The new KJ incorporates solar roof panels and wind-turbine power, heat-recovery air-handling units, high-efficiency blowers, reflective roofing to reduce the heat load, argon-insulated glass, occupancy sensors in all classrooms, and wood and brick recycled from the original KJ.
Bellona, who as Hamilton's chief of facilities and planning oversaw a majority of the KJ construction and renovation, worked closely with architects and designers to ensure that as many sustainable features as possible were incorporated. "If you put in systems that are energy efficient and done right, eventually you're going to see an overall reduction in your maintenance costs," he says. "There are some up-front costs associated with this kind of plan, but there's a conviction that in the long run, we're going to see some sort of dividend.
"The question is not whether we do it; the question is, why aren't we doing it?"
"Is your burger causing global warming?"
While the long-term quest to make campus operations environmentally sound focuses largely on buildings, fixtures and fuel, food choices and eating habits have a major impact as well. Carbon-based fuels used to transport food from one spot to another produce — you guessed it — carbon dioxide emissions, so it's important to consider whether your lunch was grown locally, like an apple from the orchard down the road, or shipped across several countries, like a banana.
Bon Appétit, Hamilton's food service provider, is aware of the role sustenance plays in sustainability. "Being carbon neutral [is] something that's very important to us," says Patrick Raynard, Bon Appétit's general manager. Each year the company takes steps both to reduce its carbon footprint and to teach students about the consequences of their decisions.
"We have always been advocates of using local food, supporting local farmers," Raynard says. Bon Appétit purchases many of its menu items from local farmers and will sponsor its fifth annual Eat Local Challenge on campus this fall. On Eat Local days, all food served comes from local farmers. Last spring, Bon Appétit also led a Low-Carbon Diet Day. Brochures for the event asked students, "Is your cheeseburger causing global warming?" and "Does your sushi get more frequent flier miles than you?" Food items that produced fewer carbon emissions were selected for the day's lunch menu. Since cattle are the biggest source of greenhouse-gas methane, beef and dairy were avoided as well as food that required much shipping. Students learned firsthand about dietary options from a planetary perspective.
Next on the table is a plan to reduce waste created by the dining hall. Plans for regular trayless days are under discussion, the hope being that students would pile on less food — and thus throw less food away — if they were carrying one plate at a time rather than several plates on a tray.
Such decisions not only have immediate impact, Raynard believes; they also reinforce the Sustainability Committee's goal of making Hamilton students full partners in the development of a sustainable campus. "We help students with the decisions they will have to make when they get out in the real world, when they will have to choose what they want to eat," he says. "They have to think about their decisions."