MU's plans to become carbon neutral are open-ended

Wednesday, November 23, 2011 | 5:09 p.m. CST; updated 5:42 p.m. CST, Wednesday, November 23, 2011

COLUMBIA — Two years after making a public commitment to reduce its carbon footprint, MU has outlined its path: transitioning from coal to wind, solar, wood and natural gas and building more energy-efficient buildings.

MU is among 673 colleges and universities that signed the American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment. Toni Nelson, the program's director, said the commitments require that universities set a specific date to achieve carbon neutrality by eliminating their greenhouse gas emissions.


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MU has opted instead to outline a five-year "rolling plan with annual updates" that promises to achieve carbon neutrality "at some point in the future," according to the MU website where the plan is posted

MU joins between a quarter and a third of the universities and colleges that signed the commitment and have a climate plan without a target date.

Nelson said that all of these institutions, including MU, must commit to a firm date by the fourth year of the commitment — for MU that would be 2013 — to remain in good standing.

Steve Burdic, MU's sustainability coordinator, said MU's lack of a target date is a matter of honesty, not evasion.

"We don't know enough right now about what's going to happen in the future with all these competing technologies to feel good about picking a date," Burdic said.

Once a date is picked, Nelson said, it isn't difficult for universities and colleges to change it should they decide it isn't feasible.

In the spring of 2013, MU's climate plan will merge with an overarching campus master plan for future building projects and grounds management. This change will make sustainability and carbon-neutrality efforts a central part of how MU operates, Burdic said.

In the meantime, MU will be cautious about adopting new technologies that seek to reduce the campus' greenhouse gas emissions. Burdic said it is easier for smaller, wealthier private universities to spend money on making their campuses energy efficient, but for large, public universities such as MU, the process must be slower and financially conservative. That's why MU isn't "pulling a date out of the air," and creating new expenses in the rush to meet it, Burdic said.

MU consulted with Sasaki Associates, a planning and design company which specializes in eco-technologies, to develop its plan.

One of its major projects was a greenhouse gas assessment, which seeks to tally the entirety of MU's emissions before deciding how to reduce them. The final tally for MU in 2008 was 376,886 tons of carbon dioxide. According to the plan, that tonnage will drop by 20 percent to 300,439 tons by 2015.

MU's carbon dioxide emissions are in line with other Midwestern universities with climate action plans, given that size and location affect a university's energy needs and greenhouse gas emissions.

The inventory considered on-campus structures and activities that release greenhouse gases — such as electricity and steam production at the MU Power Plant, purchased electricity, commuting and waste disposal — but excluded University Hospitals and Clinics from the assessment.

The greenhouse gas inventory will be updated and re-evaluated every year along with the climate plan by Sasaki Associates and campus representatives. The next review is scheduled for Jan. 15. 

Because MU Power Plant's new wood-burning boiler will begin to operate next fall, Burdic is optimistic that MU will lower greenhouse gas emissions more than the projected 20 percent drop in five years.

He listed some of the major changes MU will engage in the effort to become carbon neutral:

  • Wind power.
  • Mixing more wood with coal at the MU Power Plant.
  • LEED buildings certified by a third party to be energy efficient and sustainably constructed.
  • Increasing natural gas usage by the power plant.
  • Transportation changes.

MU's Power Plant is looking to increase the amount of electricity it purchases from the electric grid from 11 percent to 24 percent.

Buying electricity from a grid creates the possibility of merely outsourcing MU's carbon emissions to the producer of the purchased electricity. Gregg Coffin, MU Power Plant's superintendent, said MU is exploring opportunities to ensure that a portion of its purchased electricity is from renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar or wood. The Power Plant is also exploring the possibility of purchasing some electricity directly from a wind farm, Coffin said.

And by the end of 2012, MU plans to install solar collectors at the power plant and a demonstration wind turbine on campus for both energy production and student education.

Some of MU's efforts toward carbon neutrality, such as transportation changes, depend on the cooperation of individual students, staff and faculty.

Burdic mentioned an increase in the use of public buses and bicycles and the expansion of WeCar, a rental car-sharing program that would encourage students not to bring their cars to college.

Education and outreach to MU's students is an important part of the climate action plan, Burdic said.

"When you look at all the students that go through the university, if we can get them doing more sustainability-related things and they do that for their whole lives, that's really a much huger impact than the university's own infrastructure," Burdic said.

He hopes that by integrating sustainability classes into MU's curriculum and launching educational projects such as the Power Plant solar panels, wind turbine and a proposed campus garden, MU will teach generations of students to change their lifestyles.

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