Green on black
How the greenest university in America hopes to combat its dirtiest mark.
Monday, October 26, 2009 - 23:17
A DARK SECRET: C.U.'s green campus (right) is largely powered by coal-burning plants like Valmont (left). (Photo © Lauren Buchholz)
It's no secret that the University of Colorado at Boulder is devoted to being green. It became the first college in the U.S. to establish an environmental center, setting the precedent for monitoring waste and encouraging conservation back in 1970. The campus has its own recycling system, and takes pride in making sure that all football games at its 54,000-seat stadium are zero-waste. Even its educational programs are eco-friendly: C.U. (as it's popularly known) features numerous environmental-related courses and degrees, including some of the top graduate programs in the country for environmental and architectural engineering and environmental journalism. To top all of this off, when the Sierra Club released its list of the greenest college campuses in America earlier this fall, C.U.-Boulder took first place with full marks.
Yet despite these claims to environmental fame, the Sierra Club has recently included C.U. on its list of 60 target colleges in need of improving energy efficiency through campus outreach and activism. The decision may seem a strange one at first: why should a campus that appears to be the apple of the organization's eye suddenly end up on a list of select schools requiring eco-improvement?
The answer receives a bit less publicity than C.U.'s green reputation: a dirty, not-so-little secret concerning the campus's energy use. While the university has made strides in using renewable energy sources for power, the majority of C.U.'s electricity comes from an environmentally-blacklisted fossil fuel: coal. In fact, the Boulder campus receives more than three-quarters of its electricity from powerhouse Xcel Energy, which derives around 80 percent of its power from coal-burning at various plants around the state. One of these -- the local Valmont Station in east Boulder -- has become the chief target of Sierra Club activism on campus, although other regional coal-powered plants also contribute to this total electrical input. (Source: Colorado Daily)
The notion of coupling environmental learning with an energy-efficient campus is an extremely appealing one, not only for the Boulder chapter of the Sierra Club and university students but for C.U.'s administrators as well. When financial and legal restraints and a campus the size of a small city are taken into account, however, it's a bit more difficult to approach the issue from the black-and-white perspective of "coal vs. clean." In an MNN-exclusive interview with Dave Newport, director of C.U.'s environmental center, the prominent gray area concerning energy use at C.U. was the first issue to be discussed.
"Not all renewable energy is created equal," Newport explained, meaning that a "one-size-fits-all solution" won't appear to replace C.U.'s current coal-powered needs -- or, indeed, make the campus fully-sustainable even if it did. The diversity of energy use presents one challenge: although 44 percent of the campus's carbon emissions are generated by its electricity input, another third are caused by the necessity of heating and cooling -- both of which are powered by natural gas. Another significant issue is space. Although some small renewable energy projects have found homes on various campus buildings, Newport stated that there is "simply not room for renewable energy producers at a utility scale" on the campus property. Off-campus, the outlook doesn't improve: purchasing and implementing the means to transmit renewable energy from other sources is cost-prohibitive, and using existing cables and grids laid out by fossil-fuel-powered companies to receive clean energy is illegal.
C.U.'s existing sustainable energy projects, which are significant providers of the clean energy that the campus does use (about 10 percent of its total needs), do provide a small silver lining. The campus also participates in a student-supported carbon emissions offset program through the Colorado Carbon Fund, contributing $50,000 per year to local communities for energy-efficient initiatives. Newport admitted that these were not true solutions towards energy independence, however, citing a deep-seated interest in directly escaping the commodity costs of the current fossil-fuel-powered energy systems supplying the college: "In the long term, it will be cheaper [to use renewable energy sources]: you never have to pay for fuel."
The interest of maintaining C.U.'s status as an environmentally-friendly school was also addressed during the interview. The Boulder campus has a reputation that has earned the university more than just accolades: about a third of freshmen undergraduates enroll at C.U. because of its notability as an institute for forward-thinking environmental learning, and donations to the university have increased by 10 percent in the two months following the Sierra Club's bestowment of its renowned "Greenest College in America" title. This particular recognition has softened a bit of the blow that comes with the organization's latest endeavor: despite its presence on the list of campuses in need of improved energy efficiency, the Sierra Club's official report avoided highlighting C.U. as one of the campuses desperately needing to make a clean break from relying on coal. After being made aware of the organization's initiative, Newport discussed the issue with the Boulder chapter, encouraging them to keep the report positive concerning their campus to avoid sounding hypocritical: "Otherwise, what's the title for?" Outside of this, however, C.U.'s Environmental Center has responded positively to the campaign: Newport expressed that he was "totally happy with the Sierra Club's message" and has had "some good conversations with them" concerning coal power, adding that "any visibility [about the issue] is good visibility."
Newport hopes that this visibility, along with the support of a broader social dimension incorporating more than just community-based environmental activists, will contribute towards a future where C.U. can afford -- financially and legally -- to be 100 percent sustainable concerning its energy use. "I'm interested in getting electrons delivered," he said, "in living in an energy world where the cost of energy is money [i.e., up-front payment], not fuel [including commodity and hidden costs such as environmental degradation]." With all of the free fuel hitting the Earth every day from the sun, he added, and plenty more available in the resources of wind, water and geothermal energy, "To be paying for fuel is ridiculous; to be paying for fossil fuels is even more so." It's a sentiment echoed in the Sierra Club's latest movement, and one that will hopefully provide C.U. with the opportunity to continue leading the way towards a more environmentally-supportive future for America's institutes of higher education.
Interested in learning more about green initiatives at C.U. and in the Boulder area? Check out the University of Colorado’s Environmental Center, and take a look at C.U.-Boulder’s recent proposal for a sustainable campus. For more information on the local Sierra Club, visit the home page of their Rocky Mountain chapter.
Photos and graphic © Lauren Buchholz.
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