University’s CO2 emissions plan shows ambition, but unable to meet goal

Tim Calotta/THE REVIEW
As of this week, the emissions reduction tracker reads 5.7 percent, falling well below the 20 percent benchmark set almost a decade ago.


Back in the 2008-2009 academic year, the university laid out a strategic plan to lessen its carbon footprint. That year, the university, under former President Patrick Harker, committed to cut its carbon emissions by 20 percent by 2020, giving them 12 years to implement energy-saving directives and generate community action in order to help reach their goal.

The university’s sustainability task force, a group of students, professors and faculty all striving to promote green initiatives combined with the carbon emissions plan, and the university was able to boast an action-oriented platform to combat their carbon footprint.

Michelle Bennett, now the university’s sustainability manager, was studying for her master’s degree in Australia when she heard about the initiative, describing it as “ambitious” for a large university. Upon her hiring in August 2015, Bennett was charged with undertaking this goal and making it one of her main responsibilities.

Progress has been slow to catch up with the initial hopes of the initiative.

As of this week, the emissions reduction tracker reads 5.7 percent, falling well below the 20 percent benchmark set almost a decade ago. That, along with a recent Faculty Senate meeting in which a resolution recommending the university move its electricity use to 100 percent renewable sources by 2020 was shot down, raise the questions of how the university plans to adopt more sustainable measures.

Despite the 20 percent reduction plan existing seven years prior to her arrival, Bennett said that the university didn’t bring anyone on board to focus on the carbon emissions goal until she showed up. In those years, only 2.5 percent of the goal’s 20 percent benchmark had been met, and campus was set to expand its study body as well as its educational facilities, including the Harker Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Laboratory (ISE Lab), now one of the university’s biggest net consumer of energy, according to Bennett.

That 2.5 percent, Bennett said, came from a shift in the local power grid from coal to natural gas. Shifts in off-campus occurrences are a part of the university’s plan to cut emissions but are harder to gauge. Emissions coming from the power grid created by the university are not always easy to track. A large portion of resources are dedicated to the on-campus buildings and activities because of their proximity and visibility.

That’s where the Facilities Department comes in.

As a member of Facilities, Bennett recognized that her department had been doing behind-the- scenes-sustainability work before she arrived, albeit without much communication to the public. Bennett, who said that her work is not restricted to Facilities, has now geared her role as sustainability manager toward a more public persona, getting students involved to aid in reaching the university’s goal.

“I work a lot with students and a lot with faculty,” she said. “I’m trying to be out in the UD community. Hopefully people see me.”

An example of success through her public outreach is the approval of grant money, which she used to hire her first student intern. Bennett worked with a grant writing class last semester in order to obtain this and the recently hired intern is working on a food waste initiative that will simultaneously reduce campus food waste and its carbon footprint.

The recent successes do not stop there. As Bennett exclaimed, one of the favorable aspects of the plan was its specificity, which included a plan to transition the lighting in buildings to more sustainable options.

“One of the recommendations was to upgrade our lighting, which we’ve done almost everywhere with high efficiency fluorescent lights,” she said.

Campuswide transitions to LED lighting are being made as well, but a roadblock has prevented some of this work. Bennett said that for existing buildings, the upgrade is still a work in progress, citing quality and aesthetics as the main concerns in making the change.

Another issue Bennett and her team have run into is the inability to control the activities of commuters and people coming to campus, all encompassed in the carbon reduction plan. Traveling by car to campus increases the university’s carbon footprint, but restrictions on car usage would not go over well, in Bennett’s opinion.

“We can’t just ban cars on campus,” she said. “Or if we did, what would happen? Torches and pitchforks.”

She added, “We can encourage kids to turn their lights out, but we can’t say that you must live within five miles of campus.”

That example, along with the delayed creation of Bennett’s position, makes the 20 percent by 2020 goal a stretch — a goal that Bennett once said was ambitious.

However, Bennett has not seen a lack of effort or support from the campus community and the administration. Every new building is now built to LEED Silver Standard and reductions to electricity use remain at the forefront of mitigation practices.

The data coming in from the Newark campus provides Bennett and company insight into how the university operates, how each building new and old consumes resources and how to properly ease away from carbon emitting energies.

The Newark campus, though, is the sole focus of this initiative because it consumes the greatest amount of energy, Bennett said. The plan does not include the other four campuses associated with the university, which include the Wilmington, Georgetown, Lewes and Dover satellites.

It is unclear whether another sustainability initiative will include every portion of the university as well. In last week’s Faculty Senate meeting, Marine Policy Professor and Director of the Center for Carbon-free Power Integration Jeremy Firestone introduced a resolution that recommended the university switch to 100-percent renewable energies for electricity consumption by 2020.

During his opening remarks, Firestone said that he had met with university officials, including Bennett, about his resolution, claiming that there was little opposition met when brought it up.

“[The resolution] is consistent with the university president’s climate commitment he made a number of years ago,” he said, referring to former President Harker’s 20-percent carbon reduction commitment.

Firestone said that his resolution would only focus the electricity component of the university’s resource consumption, excluding heating and transportation. The university would obtain this goal through a myriad of ways, he said, including self generation and purchasing renewable energy credits.

Vocal concerns sprang from the senators, most notably from Michael Keefe, an associate professor in the department of mechanical engineering. Keefe noted that Firestone’s resolution was indeed “interesting,” but raised questions about potential storage and the ramifications of implementing a storage system.

“Those energies require storage and batteries are not known to be environmentally friendly,” Keefe said. “When they stop working, you have to replace them, and they are toxic waste.”

In response to Keefe, Firestone mentioned that his goal might not be able to fulfill a grander promise of zero-percent waste, despite being well-intentioned.

“There are no free lunches with anything, and indeed because it takes energy to produce the components of renewable energy and it takes energy to operate them, we’re never going to live in a zero-energy world,” he said.

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