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Yale tests campus carbon tax

University wants to find most effective carbon charging methods for higher ed
University Business, February 2016
Yale will analyze the cost of carbon at its Peabody Museum of Natural History and 19 other campus buildings to help guide other institutions. (Photo: Patrick Lynch/Yale)
Yale will analyze the cost of carbon at its Peabody Museum of Natural History and 19 other campus buildings to help guide other institutions. (Photo: Patrick Lynch/Yale)

Energy conservation at Yale now goes beyond lower utility bills. The institution broke new ground in higher ed recently with a pilot program to calculate the wider cost of carbon use at 20 of its New Haven, Connecticut, buildings, including the well-known Peabody Museum and the president’s office.

The point of pollution is just one cost, says Ryan Laemel, Yale’s project coordinator. “We pay downstream in the form of added healthcare costs and rising food prices due to declining agricultural productivity, for example.”

A growing number of companies, most notably Microsoft, have begun determining the cost of their carbon use and reinvesting those amounts in energy conservation efforts, such as wind and solar power.

About 1,000 other companies are following suit or considering similar programs, according to a recent report by the nonprofit Carbon Disclosure Project.

While the university has invested heavily in solar power and other sustainability initiatives, officials also want to find the most effective carbon charging methods for the decentralized nature of many college and university campuses, Laemel says.

It will test Microsoft’s “carbon tax” model, along with several other pricing systems at 20 of its 350 buildings. One program will pit campus units against each other in competitions to cut energy use and to earn rebates on their annual budgets.

In another experiment, units will get detailed information about their energy use compared to past years and how much carbon tax they would have had to pay.

Yale has based its social cost of carbon on the federal government’s estimate of $40 per ton of carbon dioxide.

“It’s more than just getting people to turn off the lights when they leave their office,” says Jennifer Milikowsky, the program’s project manager. “We’re trying to get people to incorporate carbon-emissions thinking about their spaces and their work schedule.”

For example, if more people worked in a building at the same time, the space could be cooled or heated for specific periods and then put into standby mode, she says.

Laemel says Yale will share its findings with other schools in the hopes of forming a coalition of colleges and universities than can collaborate on carbon pricing.

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