US Colleges Teach America How To Build A Clean Energy Future

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Is America’s most significant lesson on how to combat climate change by building a clean energy economy being taught on our college campuses?

College graduation
College graduation image via Shutterstock

Climate issues are clearly important to today’s college students – 62% of all college applicants in a 2013 Princeton Review survey said a school’s commitment to the environment would influence their decision to apply or attend the school, and students have begun fossil fuel divestment movements at more than 300 colleges.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that many American colleges and universities are listening to their constituents and leading comprehensive efforts to build a sustainable future through the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC).

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Voluntary Reporting Creates Emissions Reductions

The ACUPCC is a network of higher education institutions working together to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and integrate renewable energy on campuses through a voluntary reporting system – and they’re achieving success across the country.

ACUPCC’s 2013 data summary shows exponential growth over its 2012 progress report. More than 650 colleges and universities are now participating signatories in the program, and they’ve collectively created 1,883 greenhouse gas emission inventories while submitting 309 progress reports toward their climate goals.

495 institutions have now developed a climate action plan (CAP) through ACUPCC, up from just 306 in 2012, with 29% setting a target date to achieve carbon neutrality within 20 years. One signatory, Colby College, achieved carbon neutrality two years before its target date through a mix of renewables, energy efficiency, and recycling.

The institutional network has set interim emissions reductions targets of 9.6 million metric tons of CO2 within 15 years – a 33% reduction from current gross emissions. Of the 471 institutions who have submitted more than one emissions reduction plan, 240 have already shown a reduction, with cumulative emissions decreased by 328,698 metric tons.

On-Campus Renewables Doubled In One Year

Increased renewable energy output has gone hand-in-hand with emissions reductions for ACUPCC participants. In less than one year, the number of signatories pledging to integrate renewable energy on campus has doubled, from 134 in June 2012, to 309 in March 2013.

These schools now produce 322 gigawatt hours (GWh) of clean electricity every year – enough to power the annual equivalent of 34,021 American households and nearly twice the 171GWh produced in 2012. Solar energy is leading the way, with 208GWh produced across 281 campuses, but wind power and biomass generate their share with 67GWh wind output at 57 campuses and 57GWh biomass power at 12 campuses, respectively.

But even when schools can’t generate clean electrons, they’re still helping fund the clean energy transition through renewable energy credits (RECs). 160 signatories have purchased 1,395GWh of RECs, making ACUPCC the 3rd largest-purchaser of RECs in America.

Clean Energy Creates Economic Benefits

In addition to cutting emissions, 68% of ACUPCC signatories who have submitted climate action plans report an economic boost as a direct result of their efforts. Participating schools have saved $119 million from implemented renewable power and energy efficiency projects, and 137 signatories have secured $305 million in funding from outside sources to cover their sustainability efforts.

This clean energy commitment is going beyond college administrative business decisions to reach into classrooms – perhaps providing the greatest hope for the future. As of March 2013, 141 ACUPCC participants require all students to have sustainability as a learning outcome, and 29 now include sustainability in every academic major. Add it all up and you get more than 161,000 graduates with a sustainability education, primed for green jobs.

Reducing emissions and energy costs, expanding the market for clean energy, and building a sustainable future one student at a time – talk about a triple bottom line.

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