Two stories of campuses doing something about climate change

Just a short post today, sharing two positive stories about academic institutions taking concrete action about climate change.

ITEM: in Illinois, Loyola University Chicago is re-sourcing its electrical power to a renewable provider.  Loyala will purchase power from a nascent solar installation in-state:

Developed by renewable energy developer, owner and operator Swift Current Energy, the project—named “Double Black Diamond”—will be the largest solar farm in Illinois and among the largest solar projects in the country, and provide enough electricity to completely power the University’s Lake Shore, Water Tower, and Health Sciences Campuses.  

When does this start?  “Double Black Diamond is expected to start producing renewable electricity in late 2024.”

Note that the university worked with a consulting firm, Coho, to make this deal.  This is a budding industry that might welcome some college graduates.

This electrical outsourcing switch is also part of Loyola’s broader climate strategic plan.  There’s a lot going on there, from establishing a working group to polling the community, deciding which energy steps to take, supporting a student-run biodiesel facility, doing an inventory of campus trees sequestering carbon, and holding campus climate events.  They publish a clear carbon footprint as well:

Loyola University Chicago_carbon footprint from their plan_accessed May 2023

I appreciate the interdisciplinary charge here: “At Loyola, sustainability is an issue for every department and discipline.”

ITEM: In Maine, Bowdoin College is investing in renovating its buildings to reduce their carbon footprint.  The campus has already made some major progress: “Ninety percent of its electricity already comes from solar power, through a 5000-megawatt array near campus and an agreement to buy another 5000 megawatts from a community solar array in Farmington.”  The new actions include some serious material work:

Bringing Bowdoin’s older buildings into the 21st century means tearing down plaster walls to exposed brick, installing five inches of metal wool insulation in those walls and on the roof, replacing drafty windows, and installing electric boilers or heat pumps.

Bowdoin College bear statue.

From my 2005 visit, a fine statue.

There is also an interesting plan for building out a future energy system, which includes:

preparing buildings for the installation of a new low-temperature hot water heating and cooling system that will begin in 2037, and take five years to complete.

It will replace the natural gas-fired power plant that uses high temperature hot water and steam and is responsible for 75% of the campus’s carbon emissions. Keisha Payson, Director of Sustainability, says the college isn’t committing to any particular technology at this point, believing that advances in geothermal, battery storage, nuclear fusion, green hydrogen and carbon recapture will emerge in the next 15 years.

The whole plan doesn’t come cheaply. “Bowdoin plans to spend more than $100 million dollars over the next 15 years on campus renovations.”

I’m fascinated by some of the details, like this switch to a new building material:

The newest structures on campus, an academic hall and the John and Lile Gibbons Center for Arctic Studies, are constructed of fabricated mass timber instead of steel and concrete. HGA, Bowdoin’s engineering firm, says these are the state’s first commercially scaled mass timber buildings. The material was sourced from Austria, as there are no manufacturers in the eastern U.S. HGA’S Lauren Piepho says the use of Mass Timber reduces the building’s embodied carbon by nearly 10%.

Or this financing issue:

[W]hile Bowdoin has a healthy endowment, and generous benefactors, it’s had to borrow to pay for all of these initiatives says Matt Orlando, the college’s senior vice president of finance.

“The reality is for energy projects like this, it’s hard to raise gifts. Most people don’t want to put their name on a steam line distribution that runs underground. So it’s typically debt-funded, so we’re using the college’s debt capacity to borrow money.”

I wonder how long it’ll be a problem to attract donors to supporting such projects.

Bowdoin is also attempting to replicate passivhaus design:

Director of Capital Projects John Simoneau says these continuous barriers of insulation can make buildings airtight, similar to the passive house design concept.

“One of the parts of passive house is to have these really tight buildings. But even buildings that are not passive house like these still have the same air barrier system, you’ve got it tied into the windows, the windows have to have a really low leakage rate and that is part of the energy efficiency of these structures.”

What can we learn from these brief accounts of two institutions’ climate actions?

To start with, taking climate seriously means changing the literal look of a campus.  Bowdoin will not appear to be the same as this work progresses.

Second, such actions involve major investment and future-oriented planning.

Third, climate strategies are not simple, but instead involve many different pieces.  Look through Loyola’s plan to get a sense of its complexity and ambition.

More, I hope, to come.


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