Campus sustainability is no longer limited to recycling and lighting retrofits. Today, many colleges and universities are leading the way by designing whole-system approaches and innovative solutions to pressing sustainability issues. These cutting-edge innovations serve as powerful examples of what can be achieved on a larger scale.

Students Driving Change

Students are a major driver of sustainability initiatives on campus. According to Judy Walton, director of strategic initiatives for the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), “[Students] often push faculty and administrators to do the right thing.... In many cases they are leading the charge.” 

An increasing number of sustainability-minded students are asking deeper and more difficult questions about their colleges’ sustainability commitments and academic curriculum. We’ve written before about the growing demand for programs that prepare tomorrow’s business leaders to take on the challenges and opportunities that sustainability presents. In response, college campuses are evolving into hubs for scaling sustainability through research, collaboration, and practice. 

Case Studies

The following case studies are just a few example of sustainability innovation at work on college campuses:

1.    University of California Santa Cruz’s Climate and Energy Strategy

In an effort to work towards achieving a goal of carbon neutrality by 2025, the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC) has developed a comprehensive Climate and Energy Strategy (CES). The CES aims to further USCS’s vision to “ensure that environmental stewardship pervades all that we do.” It also serves the need of updating the campus’ 2011 Climate Action Plan and mitigating pending cap and trade regulation. The CES is the first of its kind within the UC system.

A standout innovation of the CES was the development of a custom-built techno-economic scenario analysis tool that was used to compare economic and carbon impacts of numerous alternatives, and to define an optimized set of measures. Using this tool, the project team was able to make more informed decisions about potential options to reduce carbon emissions, based on useful metrics such as net present value, savings-to-investment ratio, and the cost per million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e) saved through 2055.

The scenario analysis tool also allowed the project team to evaluate the feasibility of renewable energy options, comparing alternatives such as solar photovoltaic, solar thermal, fuel cells, and hybrid photovoltaic-thermal systems. The best performing scenario is expected to result in approximately 75 million kWh saved through 2025 from Energy Efficiency Projects, and over 55 million total kWh generated through 2025 from renewable energy projects. The tool allows the USSC team to regularly update the strategy as projects evolve and market conditions change. The project leaders plan to share the tool with other campuses, and also provide a customized training and user manual.

2. Emory University’s WaterHub

Since it’s commissioning in May 2015, the WaterHub at Emory University has reclaimed and reused over 52 million gallons of wastewater. 

This innovative water reclamation system, the first of its kind in the US, utilizes eco-engineered technology to reclaim campus-generated wastewaters for the University’s utility operations. Wastewater cleaned by the WaterHub is used as an alternate source of water for non-potable demands including heating, cooling, and toilet flushing. The WaterHub enables the University to reduce its draw of potable water by up to 146 million gallons annually. It is capable of recycling up to 400,000 gallons per day, displacing nearly 40% of total campus water demand. 

Emory’s impactful water management strategy has protected the University from municipal water main failures and reduced its dependence on the limited water supply in the Metro-Atlanta region. In addition to providing a reliable source of water to the campus community, the WaterHub also serves as a learning laboratory for education and community outreach related to sustainable water management and environmental stewardship.

University of Wisconsin Oshkosh’s Biogas System
The Biogas system at University of Wisconsin Oshkosh is the nation’s first commercial system of its kind. The system consists of three anaerobic digestion facilities. These biodigesters divert organic wastes from landfills, destroy methane gas, generate electrical and thermal energy, and produce high quality organic fertilizer. In addition, these facilities are also used as teaching, research, and outreach tools. Program goals include:

-    Generating electricity from renewable biomass resources
-    Diverting organic wastes from landfills
-    Mitigating groundwater pollution
-    Developing partnerships with community stakeholders
-    Supporting research on biomass energy and organic waste management

-    Educating UW Oshkosh and other university and college students through the curriculum and co-curricular activities
-    Helping the campus meet its climate neutrality goals

The results are impressive. When all three plants are operating at approximately 90% of their capacities, their combined electricity and thermal heat output in equivalent units will exceed over half of UWO's current power consumption. The dry anaerobic biodigester on campus processes about 11,000 tons of organic wastes annually, which are diverted from landfills and turned into a soil amendment branded as Titan Gold. Almost half – over 500 tons – of that waste stream comes from campus food waste. 

Under Pressure

The examples above demonstrate how colleges and universities are accelerating sustainability, both in planning and in practice. In each example, the schools acted in response to a range of pressures and expectations. UCSC anticipated pending climate regulation. Emory faced regional water risks. The University of Wisconsin Oshkosh had made commitments under the Earth Charter and the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment. 

The same holds true for companies and municipalities facing a growing list sustainability risks and opportunities. Pressure from customers, competitors, partners, regulators, and other stakeholders are prompting organizations to act. 

Whether you’re a sustainability manager at a college or a company, Sustrana has tools and resources to help you walk the talk. Be sure to check out our website to learn more about the key benefits of using Sustrana to manage your sustainability program and bring big goals to fruition efficiently and affordably. You can also request a demo on how Sustrana can help your institution or company become more sustainable.