Laura Arenschield July 6, 2014
In the past, colleges and universities “went green” by holding recycling challenges or encouraging students to turn down their air conditioners when the days got a little too sultry. But sorting cans from bottles will only get you so far.
To make real changes, university leaders realized, they needed to change the fundamental ways they did things.
In the past few weeks alone, Ohio University’s trustees voted to move away from using coal as an energy source and the University of Dayton announced it would stop investing in fossil fuel companies.
In Washington, D.C., George Washington and American universities signed an agreement to get about half of their energy from a solar farm in North Carolina. Officials with the two schools say they are saving money because of the way the deal with the utility is structured.
Ohio State University has offset its energy use for the past two years by buying credits for wind power from turbines in northwestern Ohio.
“We’re not naive. This is not a ‘good-guy/bad-guy’ thing, because we all benefit from (oil and gas energy),” said the Rev. Martin Solma, vice-chairman of the University of Dayton Board of Trustees. “But we have to increase our consciousness that we have to do some things differently if there’s going to be a future.”
The University of Dayton has investments totaling about $670 million. About 5 percent of that — about $33.5 million — had been invested in fossil-fuel companies. Solma said Dayton’s trustees decided to invest that money in other industries because they wanted the university to exemplify the Catholic values on which it was founded.
Dayton, like Ohio University, Ohio State and other colleges across the country, also was trying to fulfill promises from a pact it signed to make its campus climate-neutral and help slow global warming.
A number of other Ohio universities, including Miami, Toledo and Bowling Green, also signed the pact. And almost 700 universities across the country have signed on.
By agreeing to the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, university presidents committed their campuses to significant changes. Some of those changes include modifying where energy comes from and pledging to construct more-sustainable new buildings.
At Ohio State, that meant signing on to windmill energy, said John Rappleye, OSU’s senior energy-programs manager.
Rappleye said the university offsets about 25 percent of the energy it uses on the main campus through wind power.
Ohio State has committed to be climate-neutral by 2050.
Ohio University has made a similar commitment and is starting by cutting its reliance on coal to try and curb its contributions to global warming. The university’s board of trustees voted on June 27 to rely more on natural gas to power the campus, and OU plans to stop burning coal by 2015.
The schools acknowledge that in some cases, the changes can be more expensive.
Scott Miller, director of energy and environmental programs at OU’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, said students and faculty at universities also are driving changes there.
Commitments by large and small campuses to stop contributing to climate change could be a sign that changes are afoot across the country.
“Universities are in many ways kind of petri dishes for trying out new ideas,” Miller said. “I think that there is a growing awareness that people need to take action on some of these climate issues and renewable energy.”