Date April 22, 2018
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Brown assessing new plans toward net-zero carbon emissions

With the University nearing its sustainability goals for 2020 and the threat of climate change growing more severe, Brown is evaluating plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions to zero.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — A decade ago, Brown set out to cut campus greenhouse gas emissions nearly in half by 2020. With that goal now in sight, the University is taking even more aggressive action through two new initiatives to confront what scientists say is an increasingly dire threat posed by climate change.

This month, Brown began evaluating proposals to develop an off-campus renewable energy project that will produce enough power to offset most of the University’s current electricity use generated through fossil fuels. With that effort underway, Brown is devising a plan to establish new emissions goals and reduce or offset emissions from Brown-owned vehicles, campus heating and cooling systems, employee commutes and more.

Together, the two efforts could cut the University’s net greenhouse gas emissions to nearly zero.

“To preserve a chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change, scientists say the global community must bring greenhouse gas emissions to zero by mid-century,” said Brown President Christina Paxson. “These new initiatives affirm our deep commitment to environmental sustainability and establish Brown as a leader in confronting what is one of the greatest challenges our society faces today.”

Central heating
Last year, Brown launched an effort to convert its steam-based central heating loop to hot water to increase thermal efficiency on campus. A new proposal being developed by a committee of faculty, staff and students could include a plan to use renewably generated electricity to heat and cool Brown’s buildings. Photo: Nick Dentamaro

This spring’s actions build upon a series of initiatives implemented since 2008, when Brown pledged to cut emissions to 42 percent below 2007 levels by the year 2020. To make it happen, the campus switched from fuel oil to natural gas in its central heating plant, invested in energy-efficient LED lighting and launched a $24 million project to convert its steam-based central heating loop to hot water, among other undertakings.

“With significant investments and a dedicated effort by staff in Facilities and individuals across the campus community, we’ve made substantial progress in reducing emissions toward our 2020 goal,” said Stephen Porder, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and co-chair on the committees leading both new efforts. “Now, it’s time to aim much higher — the consequences of climate change are indisputable.”

Step one toward greater emissions reductions is to confront what the Greenhouse Gas Protocol defines as Scope 2 emissions, which come from the consumption of purchased electricity. In February, Brown issued a call for proposals from developers who would create a renewable energy project to generate up to 95,000 megawatt hours of electricity annually — enough power to offset between 70 and 100 percent of Brown’s electricity use and cut its net greenhouse gas emissions by almost 50 percent.

Two months later, more than 25 developers have submitted proposals. Porder and Leah VanWey, associate provost for academic space and a professor of  sociology and environment and society, will lead the process of evaluating potential projects that would produce power through wind, solar or other renewable sources.

“We’re going to evaluate each project economically, socially, politically and environmentally and select the proposal that we think best optimizes those various considerations,” Porder said.

Porder said projects in Rhode Island and elsewhere in the U.S. will be considered, and he expects the University to make a selection by August 2018.

But offsetting greenhouse gas emissions from electricity use is just the beginning for Brown, Porder said. The second effort launched this spring — exploring what it will take, in time and money, to move the campus to net-zero carbon emissions and devising a plan to address Scope 1 and 3 emissions — is the job of a second committee led by Porder and VanWey and comprising students, faculty and staff.

Scope 1 emissions, Porder explained, are the result of actions taken by the University and its community directly on its campus.

“We burn natural gas in our central heating facility,” Porder said. “We burn natural gas and fuel oil in various boilers in buildings that aren’t connected to the central heating facility. We own a vehicle fleet. We run shuttles. We use leaf blowers. All of that is combustion that occurs on campus and emits greenhouse gases.”

Scope 1 emissions are easy to define but challenging to reduce, he added. Scope 3 emissions, defined by the Greenhouse Gas Protocol as “emissions that are a consequence of the operations of an organization, but are not directly owned or controlled by the organization,” are harder to measure, Porder said.

For Brown, Scope 3 emissions might include greenhouse gases produced by faculty, staff or students who drive to campus, for example, or travel on airplanes as they conduct research or fieldwork. They might include emissions from the vans that deliver food to eateries on campus. But should Scope 3 include emissions from the flights that prospective students take to visit Brown? Or those from the electricity and materials it took to make Brown’s desks and chairs, some of which are centuries old?

Deciding exactly where to draw the line in calculating Brown’s Scope 3 emissions is one among the committee’s challenges, Porder said.

As the committee develops a de-carbonization plan — complete with new emissions goals, a timeline for bringing Brown to net-zero emissions, proposed solutions for reducing emissions, and cost estimates — the group will seek input from Brown community members, including at an April 30 meeting of the Brown University Community Council. Ultimately, the plan will be presented to Paxson and then to the Corporation of Brown University.

VanWey said that potential solutions outlined in the plan could include anything from modern heat-pump technology and renewably generated electricity to heat and cool Brown’s buildings to a fleet of electric vehicles on campus and more.

“When we combine our Scope 2 renewable power purchase with reductions in Scope 1 and 3 emissions,” VanWey said, “we could reduce Brown’s emissions by 80 percent or more.”

Porder was quick to note that avoiding catastrophic climate change will take a sustained effort across the globe, and Brown isn’t working in isolation as it looks to eliminate campus emissions. Last June, after the White House decided to remove the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, the University joined a group of 11 leading research institutions in reaffirming commitments to enhancing sustainable practices. He said facilities managers across university campuses meet regularly to share progress and find new ways to collaborate.

“I think it’s a very useful way of moving forward, because we can all learn something from each other,” Porder said. “We don’t want to keep our projects a closely guarded secret. If we learn something valuable about cutting emissions, we want to share it with as many campuses as possible so that they can try it, too.”