College releases five-year inventory on greenhouse emissions

The recent release of Swarthmore’s 2005-2010 Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Inventory constitutes a great stride for the college in improving its environmental sustainability and contributing to the fight against climate change. The inventory reviews the college’s current emissions levels, provides recommendations for future sustainability efforts, and establishes a baseline by which to evaluate future development.

Environmental Sustainability Coordinator Clara Fang, whose previous work includes compiling a similar Greenhouse Gases report for the city of Albany, NY, developed the GHG Inventory from data provided by multiple campus sources.

Work on this project began in 2010, when President Rebecca Chopp signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment. This agreement pledged that the college would develop a Greenhouse Gas Inventory and climate action plan addressing climate change in both its operations and curriculum.

The inventory examines greenhouse gas emissions resulting from college operations both on campus (primarily from the heating plant) and off-campus from the college’s electricity use and school-related travel. Similar inventories will be compiled and released annually, as required by the agreement.

Ultimately, the college aims to be carbon neutral by 2035.

The study concluded that the college has significantly lessened its emissions since 2005. During this period, gross emissions decreased by 26%, despite increases in the college’s population and building square footage.

In 2010, college-related activities emitted a total of 15,565 gross metric tons of greenhouse gases, the same amount produced in powering 1,941 homes for a year. Emissions related to heat and electricity use in college buildings accounted for 76% of this total. After subtracting the college’s total carbon offset credits, net emissions of greenhouse gases came out to 12,393 metric tons.

Composting and the purchase of Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) contributed to the college’s carbon offsets, with these two sources reducing total greenhouse gas emissions by 19%. RECs are units of energy produced from renewable sources funded by the college. This power goes into the national electric grid and offsets electricity the college uses that is produced from fossil fuels.

Key factors contributing to the decrease in net emissions witnessed in the previous years include the increased purchase of RECs, the substitution of natural gas for fuel oil in the college’s heating plant, and retrofits and conservation measures in buildings that have reduced total on-campus electrical consumption by 19%.

While Fang applauded the college’s significant emissions reductions, she also warned that this progress would be difficult to maintain as the college enters its next phase of expansion and development. In response to this challenge, the Climate Action Committee is working on recommendations to aid the further reduction of emissions and conservation of energy.

At the moment, heating and electricity use in buildings remain the areas in which the college’s energy efficiency can be most immediately improved. “Because heat and electricity use in buildings comprise 76% of emissions, and the college can most directly influence this aspect of its operations, the recommendations regarding buildings are very high priority, ” Fang said.

With the college already commencing renovation and construction projects this summer, Fang emphasized the need for energy efficient improvements to be included in the current and future plans. “It is very important that energy efficiency and environmental design be a part of new construction and renovation, as a building’s design locks in future energy use patterns,” she said.

Facilities Director Ralph Thayer elaborated on possible upgrades that would increase the energy efficiency of the college’s varied building heating systems, some of which are over 90 years old. Potential upgrades ranged from the improvement of building insulation to the implementation a decentralized system of localized heat production to replace the current reliance on a central heating plant. “A significant degree of the heat generated is lost in the process of distributing steam across campus and this loss diminishes energy efficiency” Thayer explained.

Thayer added that the college would need to plant a forest of 700 mature oak trees every year to offset its current heating-related emissions.

Advances in energy efficient technology are also hoped to be consistently integrated into the college’s efforts. “Lighting technologies such as LED light bulbs offer great potential to reduce energy usage and all renovations will take advantage of the most efficient lighting systems where possible,” Thayer said.

The increase of carbon offsets to reduce net emissions will also play a critical role in the college’s climate action plan, although measures devoted to lowering the college’s gross emissions through improved energy conservation will remain the top priority. “Increasing investment in carbon offsets is necessary in pushing the college closer to the carbon neutral mark, and more options for obtaining carbon offsets should be investigated,” Fang said.

The inventory further recommends the close involvement of students and employees in the effort to cut emissions by saving energy. “Education and outreach efforts like expanding the Green Advisors program and developing a Green Office Program for employees have a lot of potential to help us reduce emissions,” Fang said. By fostering a sense of environmental stewardship among the college community, such programs aim to extend the sustainability effort to the individual level as well.

The Climate Action Plan, which Fang is working on with the Climate Action Planning Committee, will contain more information about these recommendations.

Despite its wide scope, the inventory is still not without flaws. Collecting complete figures on emissions from employee air travel proved to be especially difficult, as no records were kept on where employees traveled.

A survey was conducted to collect information from individual employees, with Lang Sustainability interns Brian Lee ’14 and Collin Smith ’14 helping to convert the survey data into air miles.

As it turned out, employee air travel alone accounted for a sizable 11% of the college’s gross emissions.

Overall, the GHG inventory will be an integral component to the ongoing project of minimizing the college’s carbon footprint. “Continuing to monitor our energy consumption and carbon emissions will be crucial in helping the college refine strategies, track progress, motivate change, and celebrate success,” Fang said.

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