$17,000 to Offset Campus Carbon Emissions

Students have proposed a spending plan for $17,000 allocated to counteract on-campus carbon emissions and reach the college’s goal of carbon neutrality by 2020. The Board of Trustees allotted $17,000 for the Office of Sustainability to counteract carbon emissions from the newly-acquired Fine Arts Center (FAC) last spring. This guaranteed CC could continue working toward the American College and University President’s Climate Commitment of carbon neutrality. CC committed in 2008 to go carbon neutral by 2020 and had achieved a 30 percent reduction by 2015. Acquiring the FAC in the spring of 2016 increased the carbon emissions on campus by 15 percent due to temperature regulation in the building to preserve the art and because the FAC is looped into its own natural gas heating system.

Ian Johnson, Director of Sustainability, tasked the Environmental Economics class (EC243) with creating a proposal of carbon offsets and Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) to offset the carbon emissions of the FAC. “$17,000 is an annual budgetary allocation towards buying offsets and renewable energy credits uniquely for the Fine Arts Center,” said Environmental Economics student Lily Weissgold ’20.

Carbon offsets and RECs counteract different scopes of carbon emissions. There are three scopes of emissions. Scope I includes emissions created on campus. This includes the fleet of vehicles that CC drives, because the college purchases the fuel and then burns it, as well as the natural gas plant on campus. Scope II emissions are the carbon emissions from electricity from off-campus sources. For example, the energy CC purchases from Colorado Springs Utilities to light the buildings. Scope III emissions are all carbon consumption related to the college that do not fall under scope I or scope II. This includes food waste, travel to and from CC, and printing.

“A Renewable Energy Credit is basically a piece of paper that guarantees that you now own the right to one megawatt hour of energy that was created in a carbon-neutral manner, be that wind or solar,” Weissgold said. RECs cover only scope II carbon emissions. With a REC, the college paid for that energy to be produced sustainably though that was not the energy the college used itself. Carbon offsets are applied to scopes I and III. “I call it investing in sustainable technology,” Weissgold continued. “You invest in the power company to ensure that a certain amount of carbon emissions are not emitted elsewhere.”

To create the allocation proposal entitled “Foresight is 2020,” the class surveyed over 500  students to gauge the student body consensus on sustainability goals on campus including timeline, method, and cost. “Most students were very passionate about seeing CC meet the carbon neutrality goal by 2020,” environmental policy major Katherine Kerr ’18 said. The second most important factor was how local the RECs and offsets are. “By purchasing RECs and purchasing offsets we are supporting a market that is more accessible to your average citizen,” Kerr said. “If we’re supporting that market, that market can grow.” Mathematical Economics major Theodore Hooker ’18 agreed: “There isn’t a big enough market right now. By investing in local RECs and local offsets we can start to stimulate that market, show that there is a demand for renewable energy.”

The students had to contend with the difficulties of the local energy market while assessing the college’s options for sustainable practices. “All energy companies in Colorado signed an agreement that a certain percentage of their on-grid energy had to come from renewable sources. Hooker explained, “For Colorado Springs Utilities (CSU) to send more of their share of renewable energy to CC it would limit the amount of renewable energy in the grid so that would take them below their threshold.” The Professor who taught the block, economics Professor Mark Smith added, “We are bound by the composition of renewable energy in the CSU portfolio. We cannot become renewable unless they become renewable. The Sustainability Council met with representatives of the Colorado Springs Utility. Colorado Springs has its own objective of becoming 20 percent renewable by 2020. Until they purchase enough power to do that, they’re not going to help anybody else. There are parts of the country where you can have an independent power purchase agreement but it’s not allowed in Colorado. It’s a constrain.

On considering the purchase of buying RECs and offsets of achieve carbon neutrality, students in the class had mixed opinions. “There is a huge debate around the country right now especially in small liberal arts colleges around what being carbon neutral means and what it should mean,” Weissgold said. “We have to learn to practice a kind of sustainability that is economically efficient and good for the earth, and sometimes that’s compromising and purchasing things like RECs and offsets.” Hooker agreed, with a caveat: “I think RECs and carbon offsets are good now as a way of meeting our goal, but I think CC has future goals of becoming more self-sufficient. I think on one hand, yes we’re buying our way to carbon neutrality, but I think it’s also a good step in the right direction. It’s a process.” Weissgold sees the RECs and offsets as a direct investment rather than a stepping stone. “That is how we will bring a sustainable market to fruition,” Weissgold said. “We can make all the policy changes we want but without the investment money through those dollars, things like solar farms and windmills aren’t going to be built. It’s a way for institutions to get directly involved in how the energy sector will look in the future.”

While grappling with the proposal, students contended with the gradient of carbon neutrality. “It has to be real, it has to be additional, it has to be verifiable, and it has to be permanent,” Smith said. That means investments must decrease real emissions with global warming potential through measurable methods. The decreases must be additional to current carbon sinks or emission conversions, and the mechanisms must be permanent. For example, flaring methane converts methane to carbon dioxide through combustion, which decreases the global warming potential by 22 times and is irreversible.

Colleges committed to the American College and University President’s Climate Commitment approach carbon neutrality differently. Middlebury College, for example, purchased a nearby forest as a carbon sink, but the forest was already protected by the state of Vermont, meaning the forest was already serving as a carbon sink. On the other end of the spectrum, facilities at Colby College and CC have been built or retrofitted with geothermal and solar energy to create carbon neutral buildings. “RECs and offsets fall somewhere in the middle,” Weissgold said.

While allocating dollars, the students had to keep the CC mission in mind. “We are primarily an educational institution,” Smith said. “We had to look at these non-trivial premiums and what spending those dollars meant as opposed to spending those dollars directly on something for education.” Weissgold spoke to synthesizing the CC mission and the recommendations from Steve McDougal, CEO and cofounder of 3Degrees Inc., who created the three options based on the student survey: “If RECs and offsets are purchased in-state, it provides an educational opportunity for students. Students can go to the landfill where they are flaring methane. That dovetails with our mission statement and the sense of place in the Rockies and is why we ultimately ended up proposing local options.”

The final proposed plan costs $8,601.77 in total. The proposal recommends purchasing RECs from Colorado Wind to further wind energy and offsets from the Larimer Landfill that would fund methane combustion. According to the report, “With this option, the Fine Arts Center would offset the scope II emissions using Colorado Wind for a price of $6,493.50. Carbon offsets from the Larimer Landfill will offset scope I & III emissions for a price of $2,108.27.” As clarified in the class’s proposal, “At approximately 15 percent of the total emissions of Colorado College, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center represents a substantial problem—or opportunity—when it comes to achieving the larger goal of becoming completely carbon neutral by the year 2020.” The offsets and RECs allow the college, and specific students, to stimulate local sustainable energy markets and learn the details of every step of the process toward carbon neutrality.

Students reflected on the class positively. “I’ve never seen a class so engaged in a project in my life and don’t think I ever will again,” Weissgold said. “It’s not abstract. It’s something that the school is actually doing, and no decision the school makes is arbitrary.” After the students presented the allocation proposal on Wednesday afternoon, the Office of Sustainability informed them the office will look it over for the next few weeks.

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