Colby College Eliminates Greenhouse-Gas Emissions, Declaring Itself Climate Neutral

Screen shot 2013-04-04 at 2.01.37 PMColby College has achieved what only a handful of other higher-education institutions have done so far: The college has met its goal in the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment and declared itself climate neutral. That means—essentially, with some caveats—that the college has zero greenhouse-gas emissions.

After signing the climate commitment, Colby set a goal of reaching climate neutrality by 2015—a date far sooner than most other institutions that had signed. Only three other colleges have achieved climate neutrality under the commitment: the College of the Atlantic, Green Mountain College, and the University of Minnesota at Morris. (However, the College of the Atlantic may no longer be climate neutral—more on that below.)

Meeting the climate commitment involves certain costs. Colby started purchasing renewable electricity in 2003 at a premium that initially cost the college $50,000 a year, but now, thanks to more availability in the renewables market, it costs roughly half of that.

Screen shot 2013-04-04 at 2.02.36 PMThe college also put $11-million into a wood-fired biomass plant (pictured at left) that went online last year. By burning 22,000 tons of local, sustainably harvested wood, the biomass plant provides the college’s heat and hot water, along with some electricity—all while saving money, as much as $1.4-million last year. (The college still needs a little heating oil to give the heating plant extra power on the coldest days of winter.) To help matters, the college invested in energy efficiency and geothermal technology, which uses the constant temperature of the ground to help heat and cool buildings.

Of course, nearly every college has activities that affect the environment but that energy efficiency and renewable power can’t abate—like air travel and commuting for employees and students, which are all counted as part of the college’s emissions. To mitigate those sources of greenhouse gas, the college will invest $50,000 this year in offsets. Offsets have been the most controversial aspect of the climate commitment, with critics likening them to the old Roman Catholic indulgences—essentially buying away your sins. But others have said that they are unavoidable and acceptable for a small portion of the most difficult emissions to deal with.

The College of the Atlantic was the first signatory of the climate commitment to declare itself climate neutral, in 2007, and it did so primarily through offsets. However, it seems that the college will stop buying offsets this year, after students decided that the policy was “taking an easy way out,” said Donna Gold, a spokeswoman for the college. She said the college was working on a new energy policy and will vote next week on the policy.

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