UC Irvine Tops U.S. Sustainability Efforts In “Cool Schools” Ranking

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If America’s college students think the air smells a little cleaner and the vehicles sound a little quieter when they return to campus this fall, they’re probably right – U.S. higher education is on the forefront of sustainability issues, and the greenest schools might surprise you.

The University of California, Irvine is the most sustainable university in America, according to Sierra Club’s eight-annual “Cool Schools” ranking, released just in time for the back to school rush and those first awkward freshman moments.

While the entire Cool Schools rankings stand out as a resource for environmentally minded students and parents to pick the right university, it also highlights the growing movement toward green business among America’s higher education community, and might just be a stepping-stone to a national clean energy campaign.

University of California Irvine
University of California Irvine campus image via Shutterstock

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UC Irvine – America’s Most Sustainable School

Sierra Club’s rankings are the result of a voluntary survey, open to every four-year undergraduate college and university in the U.S., and evaluate entrants based on a 0-1,000 point scale awarded for criteria like curriculum, energy mix, transportation, and efficiency. 173 schools submitted responses, just a fraction of America’s more than 2,000 institutions, but more than in 2013 and 2012, showing momentum.

UC-Irvine has placed in the top ten for five years running, but made the jump from number three to number one this year, receiving 813 points on the strength of impressive clean energy investments and efficiency goals.

The school now boasts three on-site solar arrays, a 19-megawatt (MW) cogeneration plant that reuses heat generated by natural gas combustion for district heat and steam power, and an impressive 40% energy efficiency by 2020 goal compared to 2008 levels.

UC Irvine is also participating in the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2015 Solar Decathlon solar home design competition, and the school’s water-recycling program saves more than 210 million gallons per year – no small measure in the midst of California’s historic drought.

University of California Irvine water management
University of California Irvine Ecology Center photo via Sierra Magazine

Don’t Overlook Other Green Universities

As impressive as UC Irvine’s sustainability efforts are, they’ve got plenty of competition. Washington D.C.’s American University and Pennsylvania’s Dickinson College were the only two other schools to break 800 total points, scoring 804 and 803 to place second and third, respectively.

Sierra considers American University “an all-around heavyweight” due to D.C.’s biggest combined solar energy purchasing program, dozens of buildings currently in the LEED-certification process, and a fleet of 11 electric vehicles. The future looks even brighter with a 2016 goal of no bottled water, a 2017 goal of 50% sustainably sourced dining-hall food, and a 2020 zero-waste goal.

American University electric vehicle
American University electric vehicle photo via Sierra Magazine

But while Dickinson may be a smaller school than UC Irvine or AU, it more than compensates through a huge commitment to sustainability. Dickinson focuses on capturing stormwater through rain gardens, cisterns, and porous pavement –important in an age of extreme weather. The school also boasts more than 100 eco-themed classes in 33 academic disciplines, and sources dining hall food from its own organic farm.

Several other schools in the top ten stand out for individual achievements, including fifth-ranked Lewis and Clark College’s solar-powered campus where students willingly pay for renewable energy credits, sixth-ranked Stanford University’s 300+ electric vehicle transit fleet and $18 billion endowment fossil fuel divestment pledge, and seventh-ranked University of South Florida’s 20-kilowatt solar powered EV charging station and clean energy/smart grid research centers.

Can Cool Schools Spur Clean Energy Expansion?

The individual accomplishments of U.S. universities are no doubt impressive, but they might not be the most important aspect of the Cool Schools ranking, according to Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune.

Student awareness of environmental issues, not the schools they attend, may just be the most important function of Cool Schools. “Their most important function is to foster accountability. Colleges and universities should be leading the charge on sustainability and the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy,” said Brune. “When they don’t, students will be the first to speak up.”

To that end, the Sierra Student Coalition is using the Cool Schools ranking to launch a new Campuses for Clean Energy campaign, aiming to push administrations to invest in 100% renewable energy and expand the growing fossil fuel divestment movement.

College classrooms are renown for their ability to spark intellectual pursuits in young people. But more and more frequently, universities across the U.S. make news for clean energy investments designed to improve their bottom line while reducing their environmental impact. With time, who knows – college classrooms may just become known for sparking America’s clean energy transition.

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