North Carolina, with its long coastline and many low-lying areas, is particularly vulnerable to the unpredictable effects of climate change. As a charter signatory of the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, UNC has taken a leadership role in implementing strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the impacts of climate change.
In 2006, UNC and the town of Chapel Hill became the first town-gown partners in the country to commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 60% by 2050 with the Community Carbon Reduction (CRed) pledge. In 2007, UNC became a charter signatory of the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) and pledged to achieve climate neutrality by 2050. Subsequently, more than 650 institutions of higher learning have endorsed the ACUPCC pledge.
A greenhouse gas (GHG) inventory quantifies emissions resulting from on-site fuel combustion, purchased electricity, and other university operations. Results from UNC’s 2011 GHG Inventory indicate a 12% per square foot emissions reduction since the campus peak in 2008. Campus square footage increased 5% during this period. Building-related energy consumption amounted to 79% of greenhouse gas emissions. Transportation emissions, primarily from air travel, comprised 19% and paper, fugitive, and other emissions together comprised 2% of total emissions. The inventory serves as a benchmarking tool and guides University strategies to reduce its carbon footprint.
Climate Action Plan
In order to achieve climate neutrality by 2050, UNC evaluated the most cost-effective options to reduce emissions. The first campus Climate Action Plan, completed in fall 2009, outlines the most promising opportunities over the short- and long-term. An interim goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to year 2000 levels by 2020, despite a 38% increase in on-campus square footage in the last decade. Seventeen strategies have been identified to halve emissions at low or moderate cost. They include efficiency improvements in new and existing buildings, the introduction of heat recovery chillers, and behavioral changes.
Renewable Energy Opportunities
The greatest potential for reducing emissions lies in energy efficiency and in switching to renewable fuel sources. Although UNC has an efficient, award-winning cogeneration facility, coal is a carbon-intensive fuel. Co-firing coal with a solid biomass fuel is a potentially viable short-term strategy. Torrefied wood, a dense charcoal-like substance, has a high energy value and can be made from waste wood. The torrefaction process can also produce fuels from agricultural wastes. Pellets of torrefied fuels with surface areas to facilitate combustion have been test-fired with coal to assess the feasibility of burning this fuel in existing campus boilers. In Fall 2010 and April 2011, UNC completed the first pilot burns of torrefied and pelletized wood. The project is on hold while the University continues to search for a company willing to supply torrefied wood. In 2013, UNC avoided using over one trillion BTUs of energy, which is equivalent to the electricity generated by burning 40,500 tons of coal at a traditional generating facility.
A new 1,000 kilowatt generator at Carolina North converts gas from the Orange County landfill to electricity for the grid. The University and Orange County negotiated the landfill gas recovery agreement in 2009 as a way to reduce carbon emissions, provide a revenue stream to Orange County, and advance UNC’s carbon neutrality goals. The University sells the electricity to Duke Energy and plans to ultimately use the waste heat for buildings at Carolina North. During the first five months of operation, the generator used 42 million cubic feet of landfill gas, which contains about 50% methane. The same amount of landfill gas was flared. Now that the generator is operating full-time, less gas will be flared. Together, these activities kept 30,000 tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere, or the equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas emissions of 8000 passenger vehicles.
Methane is produced when waste decomposes in a landfill. Its global warming potential is at least 21 times higher than carbon dioxide. By keeping methane out of the atmosphere, the University receives carbon credits and moves toward its goal of becoming carbon-neutral by 2050.
Solar energy technologies provide significant opportunities for space and water heating and for generating electricity. Three-dimensional aerial maps indicate which campus roofs have the appropriate slope and orientation to accommodate solar energy technologies. Photovoltaic panels covering the south-facing roof of the North Carolina Botanical Garden Education Center generate nearly 8% of the building’s electricity from sunlight and is the first to sell solar-generated electricity back to the campus grid. Morrison dormitory on South Campus has implemented its own solar heating installation with help from RESPC. One-hundred seventy-two solar thermal panels mounted on the roof of all four building wings provide heat to the domestic hot water and building heating system, two sets of which face southeast and two which face southwest. The residence hall’s plumbing system draws first on solar-heated water from a 6,000 gallon storage tank and adds steam-heated water when needed.
Carolina’s Energy Frontier Research Center for Solar Fuels advances emerging solar energy technologies and devices that can efficiently produce fuels. The research focuses on innovative interdisciplinary research, including improved generation of fuels and electricity from sunlight. The center involves more than 20 faculty, 30 postdoctoral fellows and graduate students, and collaborations with scientists from multiple universities.
Although North Carolina’s central Piedmont is not rich in wind resources, the mountains and coast experience strong, steady winds that may be suitable for generating electricity. At the request of the North Carolina General Assembly, Carolina conducted a feasibility study of coastal wind potential in 2009. The assessment addressed ecological risks and synergies, available transmission capacity, carbon reduction potential, economics, and utility statutory and regulatory constraints. Preliminary findings indicate that there is potential for economically attractive, utility-scale production of wind energy off the coast of North Carolina and within the eastern Pamlico Sound. The study team recommended aggressive pursuit of offshore wind energy and careful study of new federal regulatory processes. A 2010 study by Duke Energy Carolinas gathered extensive data on the presence of birds, fish, and marine mammals in the areas well-suited for wind development during all seasons of the year.
Other opportunities for emission-reduction addressed in the Climate Action Plan include new “green” development, improved efficiencies within the energy supply infrastructure, demand-side efficiencies in existing buildings, behavioral changes to reduce energy demand, enhanced waste management and purchasing practices, and more multi-modal transportation options.
In July 2012, University representatives from across the state assembled at the Appalachian Energy Summit, hosted by Appalachian State University and the Rocky Mountain Institute. The goal of the Summit is to develop actionable energy plans to benefit students, the environment, and the local economy. Representatives from all 17 campuses in the UNC system subsequently embraced the North Carolina Energy Leadership Challenge with the goal of reducing energy use and collectively avoiding $1 billion in energy costs by 2020.
Building design and maintenance, finance strategies, transportation practices, and regulatory obstacles were the primary themes.
At the 2013 Summit, a new initiative was launched to accelerate the adoption of energy and sustainability into the curriculum offered at each institution. Several schools now pay faculty to catalyze the integration of sustainability into the curriculum. Professional development workshops and course development grants offered at multiple institutions encourage and assist faculty to modify their courses.
The Energy Summit goals are in line with the Board of Governors’ policy to systematically incorporate sustainability principles throughout the 17 campus institution. Per a June 2013 policy amendment, each UNC campus shall designate a “Chief Sustainability Officer” to integrate sustainability “policy goals into the institution’s processes, administration, teaching, research, and engagement.”
Beyond implementing new practices and technologies on campus, UNC is providing local and state leaders with the tools to address climate change. In October 2008, the Center for Urban and Regional Studies hosted more than 100 policymakers, researchers, students, and practitioners at a conference addressing “The Impact of Climate Change on an Evolving North Carolina Coast.” Nationally recognized experts discussed the latest forecasts for sea level rise, the potential impacts for North Carolina, and options for implementing new strategies.
At the request of the North Carolina General Assembly, UNC’s Institute for the Environment coordinated and provided an extensive Climate Change Committee Report in spring 2009. This report tapped the expertise of more than 40 University faculty and staff to provide policymakers with explanations, predictions, and recommendations specifically related to climate change in North Carolina. Mitigating and managing the negative environmental and public health effects associated with climate change and seizing new economic development and infrastructure opportunities are likely to be among the highest priorities of state governments for decades to come.