In Georgia, as in other states, colleges model renewables

renewable energy 101, Environment Georgia, solar

A Georgia environmental group is offering rare praise to local colleges and universities as models for a state that must do more to adopt clean energy.

Environment Georgia is best known for its investigative reports and tough critiques of policies, agencies and polluters. But in Renewable Energy 101: Tools for Moving Your Campus to 100 Percent Clean Energy, the Atlanta-based nonprofit argues that Georgia’s “campuses are rigorously addressing the climate crisis, saving money, and educating students and community members in the process.”

The campuses don’t just provide models for other property owners to increase efficiency and reduce carbon emissions, but they can help cities like Athens, Atlanta and Augusta reach their ambitious goals to switch entirely to clean energy by mid-century, the report argues.

“Cities are making all these commitments, and the next question is, ‘So how do you achieve that?” Environment Georgia Executive Director Jennette Gayer said in an interview. “If you look around the state, you can see that there are campuses that are doing a lot of the things that need to be done to get there.”

Not surprisingly, Renewable Energy 101 spotlights Georgia Tech’s Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design (which happens to be the inspiration for this blog) for incorporating “nearly all of the principles” cited in the report. Among them: energy efficiency, passive design, photovoltaics and waste reduction.

At the same time, the report catalogues dozens of other steps taken by higher-ed institutions in Georgia. Among the highlights:

  • Emory University “has surpassed its goal of reducing energy use by 25 percent per square foot from 2005 levels. Now, Emory has set another ambitious goal: cut energy usage per square foot by 50 percent in Emory University buildings and 25 percent in Emory Healthcare buildings.” The private university also “has developed a robust commute options program that offers resources and incentives to employees who commute by walking, biking, carpooling, vanpooling and public transit,” and it claims to have seen “a 25.7 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from faculty and staff commuting since 2005.”
  • “In 2019, [the University of Georgia] reached a 21 percent reduction in energy use intensity from a 2007 baseline through concerted efforts to improve efficiency in its buildings and energy infrastructure.” The University System’s flagship institution also is “in the midst of establishing one of the largest electric bus fleets in the United States” as it replaces “more than 30 of its oldest diesel buses with Proterra Catalyst E2 electric buses.”
  • “The five solar arrays [on tiny Agnes Scott College’s campus] now generate 342,200 kilowatt hours per year of renewable energy, which is enough to power 31 average sized U.S. homes. … Combined with energy conservation and efficiency efforts, more solar will help ensure that the college meets its interim goal of reducing its carbon footprint 50 percent by 2022, and eventually 100 percent by 2037.” Agnes Scott also is heating and cooling two of its historic buildings with geothermal wells, and the renovation of one of those building’s earned LEED Platinum certification.
  • Georgia State University hasn’t progressed as far in photovoltaics. But it has upgraded a 34-year-old rooftop thermal solar system that uses the sun to directly heat water for the 136,000-square-foot Library South. GSU’s huge downtown campus also has taken various steps to encourage bicycling, electric vehicles and recycling.
  • Finally, in addition to completing the Kendeda Building, Georgia Tech “has committed to reducing its energy use by 50 percent from 2007 levels by 2040 and ultimately becoming carbon neutral by 2050.” Through an agreement with Georgia Power, the Atlanta campus also has established a micro-grid that’s in part intended to help the utility figure out how to use grid improvements to maximize efficiency and clean energy.

The report details less substantial improvements at Fort Valley State, Georgia Southern, Spelman and other institutions.

Despite Environment Georgia’s catalog of deserving examples, a bit of perspective is in order. Colleges and universities are among the leaders in adoption of clean energy and efficiency across the nation, and Georgia’s schools haven’t been pushed by policies like those that exist in other states to address the climate crisis. In one sense, in fact, Georgia’s moved in the opposite direction by effectively barring state agencies from using to state money attain certification under LEED certification and other leading green-building standards.

While two of the state’s private colleges last year ranked among the Princeton Review’s Top 50 Green Colleges (Agnes Scott  at 13 and Emory at 26), none of Georgia’s public schools make the grade. As of 2018, no Georgia campuses were recognized by Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education among the 10 “Top Performers” in the categories of Air/Climate, Buildings or Energy categories.

“I agree that Georgia’s university’s could be making stronger commitments, but there’s some pretty impressive steps that they’ve taken,” Gayer said.

And the larger point still relevant: Solar power, efficiency programs, clean transportation and renewable power goals prove to other property owners that they can take similar steps. That’s fitting , as Howard Wertheimer, Georgia Tech’s former chief architect, argued in a recent column for us:

Higher education has long been at the forefront of environmental stewardship. There’s a reason for that: It fits the mission. The academy has always played a role in preparing our society for the future. And, of course, students look toward the future because they’re the ones who will inhabit it. 

PHOTO AT TOP: Workers for Hannah Solar install wiring underneath photovoltaic panels in July 2019. Photo by Ken Edelstein.