Sources and Solutions

By the time time Penn was approached about signing the commitment, the timing was ripe. As on many campuses, sustainability had become a byword among environmentally aware students. Both the Undergraduate Assembly (UA) and the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly (GAPSA) had established standing committees on sustainability. The student group FarmEcology was working to promote local and seasonal foods, and helped start a farmers’ market at 36th and Walnut streets. Some 45 tons of material was diverted from the waste stream—that is, not dumped on sidewalks after classes ended and leases ran out—through an end-of-year moveout recycling and reuse program called PennMoves. Sales of the students’ trash became treasure for West Philadelphia charities, which netted $30,000. In late 2006, the Penn Environmental Group, which was founded in 1971, a year after the first Earth Day, gave a presentation on sustainability opportunities at Penn to President Gutmann at a meeting of the campus advisory group, the University Council.

Penn had taken a number of steps to become more energy-efficient in its operations—for example, setting up a centralized control center for some campus utilities at FRES—but unlike a number of other schools, the University does not generate its own power, which limits its ability to reduce emissions at the source. That’s one reason Penn has become a leader in the purchase of renewable energy credits (RECs), offsets that help create a market for non-carbon energy sources like wind power. Over the past several years, Penn has emerged as the biggest purchaser of wind power through this means among higher education institutions, with a string of awards from the EPA to show for it. The University currently buys 193,000 kilowatt hours annually, an amount that has grown four-fold since its initial purchase in 2001. Penn’s purchases have provided financing for 12 windmills at Bear Creek, Pennsylvania, and continue to support windpower projects across the country.

Since electricity from all sources flows through the same grid, there’s no way to tell where an individual’s or institution’s power is coming from, and RECs have been criticized as a means of, essentially, buying your way to sustainabilty. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education noted that “some perceive [RECs] as an easy way to meet the letter but not the spirit of the commitment.”

The charge is that, “until an institution is reducing its own energy load, it’s not making a credible effort to be sustainable,” Garofalo explains, “which is legitimate—that’s always the first goal.” But Penn’s purchases are being done in tandem with a serious focus on reducing the emissions it can control, he adds. The EPA also supports the idea of giving credit for emissions reductions through the purchase of RECs as a means of spurring the development of more renewable sources.

By committing upfront to purchase these offsets, “we believe we are promoting the development of the wind power industry,” says Papageorge. “It is advancing the implementation of accessible renewable technologies.”

In 2006, Penn also began tracking its own carbon inventory, working with the TC Chan Center for Building Simulation and Energy Studies, a collaboration between Penn and China’s Tsinghua University housed in the School of Design. Data from the inventory helped support the decision to sign the climate commitment, and the Center went on to research and draft the carbon reduction recommendations included in the final plan.

The involvement of such respected scholars as Center Director Ali Malkawi and William Braham, an associate professor and interim chair of the Department of Architecture who is affiliated with it, also helped secure “buy-in” among Penn’s various constituencies. “They were critical,” says Papageorge, “because of their credibility on the subject matter.”

It quickly emerged that buildings were far and away the main offenders at the University, as at most schools, accounting for 86 percent of emissions. Next up was air travel by Penn community members, at 8 percent, followed by commuting, solid-waste disposal, Penn-owned vehicles, refrigerant leakage and replacement, and landscape management, which together make up the balance.

One piece of good news the carbon inventory revealed was that, because of efficiency upgrades at Penn’s steam supplier and the purchase of RECs, Penn’s carbon footprint had actually shrunk somewhat since 1990, despite campus growth, which put the University in compliance with the Kyoto Protocol, the international agreement that called on industrialized nations to reduce emissions by 5 percent from 1990 levels by 2012.

Long term trends, though, told another story, showing that—absent any new reduction efforts—the University’s emissions would nearly double by 2050, as a result of the incremental growth of the campus’ size and population and the proliferation of new electronic devices, known as electrical intensity (watts per square foot), which together account for a 2.5 percent annual increase in energy demand. The longer such trends are projected outward, the more speculative they become, but, the plan notes, “as the journey to a reduced carbon footprint will take many years, a long-term projection is needed to provide a target for carbon reduction scenarios.”

“We don’t know what’s going to happen” by 2050, Garofalo admits. That’s why Penn’s plan is very focused on one and five-year targets, with plans to reevaluate in the future.

In any case, the solutions are the same, regardless of the timeline. To attack the electrical intensity issue, the plan calls for a mix of behavioral changes and equipment purchases to reverse the trend toward incremental increases in power consumption. To limit emissions from new and existing buildings, all future construction and renovation projects will have to be certified as LEED Silver, according to a ranking system developed by the U.S. GBC. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design; Silver is the second rating on the scale, after simple certification and before Gold and Platinum. (All Penn’s current building projects comply with LEED Silver, and the new $20 million horticultural center under construction at the Morris Arboretum is working toward a Platinum rating.)

Projects will also be measured against another standard, the EnergyStar system sponsored jointly by the EPA and Department of Energy—familiar to anyone who has bought a household appliance. New buildings must qualify for EnergyStar 90, which means that they are more energy-efficient than 90 percent of similar buildings, and renovations will meet EnergyStar 75 standards (better than 75 percent of comparables).

In many instances, building to these standards increases initial costs, which is why they have often been “value engineered” out of designs in the past, at Penn and generally, Papageorge says. However, the savings in maintenance and operations more than make up for it, she adds.

To get an idea of the potential energy savings among the 182 buildings on campus (excluding the health system), the Chan Center developed a building performance assessment tool that used information from surveys by School of Design graduate students and construction documents to rank buildings in terms of efficiency and carbon emissions.

In 2007, Wharton’s Huntsman Hall and the dental school’s Schattner Center were selected for a pilot project from among a group of buildings using more energy than anticipated. About 200 needed repairs were identified and completed, and then meters were installed to measure savings. It turned out that the repairs reduced energy use enough to save $500,000 within the first year—earning back their cost within less than six months. Another 14 buildings were studied last year and this year, ranging from the venerable Houston Hall to the engineering school’s home, Skirkanich Hall, which opened in 2006. In 2009 and beyond, FRES will be working with clients in the schools and center to retrofit eight buildings annually.

By 2014, the plan projects emissions reductions of just under 86,500 metric tons, yielding savings of almost $13.7 million, just about all of it related to cutting energy use in buildings. Energy savings, costs, and monetary benefits for the other elements in the plan are either not applicable (academic, communications) or too uncertain to quantify at this point.

Initial funding for improvements—modest, given the economic climate, says Papageorge—will come from existing budgets and a variety of other sources, with conservation expected to be the source of future expenditures “at least for the next year or two, until we come out of this economic crisis.”

Reductions in consumption should lead to monetary savings. “Why pay an outside entity these dollars when we could be using them to upgrade mechanical systems?” Papageorge asks.

Still, the balance between spending and emissions reduction is not always so clearcut. In one case, there was a debate over how stringent to make the standard for building renovations, Papageorge notes, with some pushing for Energy Star 90 as opposed to Energy Star 75. “We looked at what that would cost and what the return was, and it was not very convincing. I said to my staff, ‘Wouldn’t it be better to get more of our portfolio to Energy Star 75 for the same amount of money? And then once we’ve gotten more of our portfolio there, then we can up the standard to 90,’” which is the recommendation that appears in the published plan.

“There are many proposals out there that don’t have a very good return on investment,” Papageorge says. “It’s not that they’re not nice to do one day, but with limited resources you are looking to put your investment in the place where you can get the maximum—or a good—return in a short payback period.”

 

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