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Is your school being as green as you think it is?

Between 2007 and 2014, emissions per square foot declined 13 percent
University Business, March 2016
Since 2007, U.S. institutions of higher education have primarily reduced carbon emissions by increasing the use of natural gas. (Click graphic to enlarge)
Since 2007, U.S. institutions of higher education have primarily reduced carbon emissions by increasing the use of natural gas. (Click graphic to enlarge)

Despite higher ed’s progress in reducing energy use and making facilities more sustainable, it turns out that the biggest factor in the drop has been due to a change from coal and oil to natural gas, a cleaner-burning fuel.

Between 2007 and 2014, emissions per square foot have declined 13 percent, found a recent study of energy use and carbon emissions data at 343 U.S. colleges and universities from Sightlines, a university facilities cost-analysis provider, and the University of New Hampshire Sustainability Institute.

The concept of carbon emission reduction is relatively new, and although many institutions have enthusiastically enacted measures and erected “green” buildings, it’s an ongoing learning process.

According to Jennifer Andrews,project director for the Sustainability Institute at UNH, there are two prevalent misconceptions about green buildings. The first is that many institutions think that simply putting up a green building is a cure-all.

“I think people’s experience on the ground suggests that’s not true,” she says. “It’s more complicated than that.” As in any evolving endeavor, unanticipated issues have needed to be resolved, which often requires additional resources, time and effort.

The second misconception: that green buildings are only for schools that “have a lot of money to play with,” Andrews says.

“That goes back to first cost versus long-term cost. Very often, if you design, build and operate a green building, in the long run it is a much less expensive proposition, and hopefully a more attractive one. For [decision-makers] it comes down to, are we talking about one year or are we talking about the life of that building? It’s all perspective.”

The analysis, based on 1.5 billion square feet of campus facilities, also found that replacing older, inefficient buildings with new, more efficient ones was not lowering emissions. “It isn’t the case that more-efficient buildings aren’t more efficient,” says Andrews. “It’s the case that we tend not to just replace but upgrade, and a lot of those upgrades are energy intensive.”

Consequently, energy use was only down just 2 percent since 2007. There has also been a significant increase in campus expansions, which has offset much of the reduction in carbon emissions as additional buildings, even fuel-efficient ones, boost power needs.

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