East Hill Notes: Exploring Options for a Carbon Neutral Campus

By Joel Malina

Cornell University is committed to supporting research and the practical application of knowledge that address one of our greatest shared challenges: achieving a sustainable world.

Joel Malina

By using our campus as a living laboratory to test, develop and implement solutions, we have made significant strides to reduce our energy consumption and to increase our clean energy supply. Over the past decade, the Ithaca campus has grown by more than 2 million square feet, but energy consumption has decreased thanks to improved building energy efficiency and our Energy Conservation Initiative.
Nearly 30 percent of all dining hall meals are sourced locally and sustainably; seven percent of campus electricity is provided by solar energy; 89 percent of students use sustainable transportation; and the list goes on.
But we are striving to do more.
Last spring, Provost Michael Kotlikoff charged a diverse group of faculty, staff and students to analyze viable solutions for the Ithaca campus to achieve our goal of carbon neutrality by 2035. That group – the Senior Leaders Climate Action Group – issued a report that provides a menu of options for the university to achieve climate neutrality. The report recognizes that reducing our energy demand while exploring and investing in clean, innovative and renewable energy sources is not without costs. It will require significant capital investments and broad buy-in from both on- and off-campus communities.
One of the biggest obstacles to achieving carbon neutrality in a cold-weather climate is the elimination of fossil fuel-dependent heating. Among the options contained in the report is exploring the viability of Earth Source Heat, which may hold the greatest potential for eliminating our dependence on fossil fuels.
Because projects like Earth Source Heat will require years of research, design, testing and outreach before its viability can be confirmed, the report also provides more immediate actions that the university can take, including:
— Further reducing energy demand by accelerating our energy conservation programs
— Investing in and transition to a low-carbon footprint campus energy supply
— Incorporating rigorous building energy standards in our project approval processes to create “high-performance buildings” on campus
— Prioritizing the development of infrastructure to support a campus fleet of clean-fuel vehicles
— Promoting campus-wide behavioral change through programs such as Think Big, Live Green and other engagement programs.
Cornell’s long history of developing sustainable initiatives has always involved off-campus input, including Lake Source Cooling, eliminating coal as a heat source in early 2011, and the development of wind and solar projects.
To that end, it is important to note that the SLCAG report is not a definitive action plan but rather a list of recommendations that require additional input. We have already reached out to off-campus leaders to keep them informed, and our faculty and staff have had productive discussions with the Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative and the Tompkins County Environmental Management Council.
On Tuesday, March 28, we will host a public forum to discuss all of the available options for achieving a carbon neutral campus. This meeting will take place from 4:30-6 p.m. at The Hotel Ithaca, 222 S. Cayuga St., Ithaca. I hope you can attend.

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East Hill Notes are published the second and fourth Mondays in Tompkins Weekly. Joel Malina is Cornell University Vice President for University Relations.