Colleges reassessing energy needs, sustainability goals in the face of Covid-related shutdowns

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U.S. colleges and universities have been using Covid-related campus closures to analyze their energy needs and sustainability goals, with some now aiming to hit their carbon reduction goals sooner.

“It takes time to get momentum, and once you get it, you need to keep going,” Paul Kempf, assistant vice president of utilities and maintenance at the University of Notre Dame said.

Some schools, like Loyola Marymount University (LMU), are exploring new options, including the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s feed-in tariff program. This would let the school lease its solar roofs out to the utility to provide green power to the grid, according to Ian McKeown, LMU’s campus sustainability officer. LMU typically ranks high on the Princeton Review’s list of top green institutions.

Getting colleges green

Numerous U.S. colleges and universities have adopted ambitious renewable energy commitments as part of decarbonization strategies. Last year, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education reported that more than 40 colleges and universities now obtain 100% or more of their electricity from renewable resources.

“Your renewable energy strategy doesn’t have to stop with your organization. It can certainly stretch to include who your suppliers are, who you are working with and what types of products you are bringing into your facility,” said Adam Shalapin, global sustainability manager at the Ball Corporation during a webinar on the business case for more renewable energy in college and professional sports. As Ball implements its global renewable energy strategy, it is looking at how its strategy factors into the supply chains for the sports venues that use its products.

When developing a decarbonization and sustainability plan, it is extremely important for institutions to put in the time upfront, Raj Bazaj, executive director of customer solution at Constellation,  said. Technology and data can help, while also saving money, he added.

A lot of the time, entities that are fairly new to sustainability feel like have to scramble to try to get to what Google, Microsoft and others are doing. “And that’s absolutely not true,” Bazaj said. There are companies and institutions that have reached carbon neutral status, but there are also many that have not. He added that some of his college and professional sports customers have used the Covid-19 closures to better understand their carbon footprint and to reexamine their strategy as well as how and what they measure.

During the Covid-19 shutdowns, some universities, like Notre Dame, undertook conservation and energy efficiency efforts. “We saved a lot of money for the university,” Kempf said. Others, including LMU, have been doing a deep dive on energy use and sustainability. When people aren’t onsite, there is an opportunity to do retrofits and audits and to come up with strategies and recommendations around what happens during a campus closure, McKeown said.

Rethinking sports and energy amid Covid

If students aren’t back on campus this fall, institutions might have another opportunity to figure out where the pain points are and how to address them, said Kristin Hanczor, senior partnership manager at the Green Sports Alliance. “Every day it seems like there is a new college coming out with its announcement about what is going to happen in the fall,” she added.

In the professional  space, in the absence of live sports, athletes have realized the power of the platform that they have to take a stand for positive change, including environmental change, Kristen Fulmer, chief sustainability officer at Recipric said. For example, former NFL athletes Garry Gilliam and Karlos Dansby recently announced that, in a bid to revitalize inner cities nationwide, they are partnering to develop closed loop, eco-villages with on-site solar.

The longer that athletes are not participating in live sports, the faster that this moment, where individual athletes are taking a stand, evolves into a long-lasting movement, said Fulmer, who is also a strategic advisor to EcoAthletes, a non-profit that coaches athletes on how to speak out on climate-related topics.