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In Pursuit of Climate Neutrality at Arizona State University

Guest author Elaine Gallagher Adams, AIA, is a former RMI Manager

I believe Arizona State University (ASU) is the most radical campus in the U.S. It is also the largest. So why is it radical, and how does size factor? ASU president, Dr. Michael Crow, has committed ASU to campus climate neutrality by 2025, and getting there is a monumental feat for a school of 70,000 students covering 1,550 acres of desert. By the time ASU reaches its goal, its student population is estimated to surpass 100,000 across four campuses, plus associated faculty and staff.

Universities are microcosms of cities, giving us a living lab for achieving carbon neutrality on a municipal scale. ASU’s undertaking will be the population equivalent of Boulder, Colorado, or Independence, Missouri, reaching carbon neutrality. Now, you see why this will be such a noteworthy achievement.

ASU has partnered with Ameresco Inc. and Rocky Mountain Institute to craft an implementation plan for campus climate neutrality by 2025 and transportation neutrality by 2035. While other schools are aiming for similar targets, including Duke, University of Florida, and University of California, San Diego, ASU is the first university we’ve encountered that is taking implementation seriously and getting creative about planning and financing projects that will get them to the finish line first. (If you know of other schools with a similar timeline, please add your comment below.)

The Ameresco/RMI team is addressing this through deep reductions in energy demand for buildings and transportation, renewable and resilient energy supply, and innovative institutional policies. Many universities are racing to have the most environmentally-friendly campus, as seen in the numerous organizations rating campus greenness, including Forbes, The Princeton Review, Grist, Sierra magazine, and the Sustainable Endowments Institute. ASU appears to be leading the way toward carbon neutrality.

ESTABLISHING BASELINES

The project began, as many do, by establishing baselines—both narrative and empirical. RMI and Ameresco team members interviewed many key players at ASU and surrounding communities to understand the academic and political environment that exists in and around the campuses regarding energy and climate. We heard remarkable and consistent support for ASU’s goal, even among those who at first might seem critics of the target. For example, one academic curmudgeon stated he thinks the climate neutrality target is “liberal bullshit, but it’s a great idea.” Others echoed RMI’s belief that ASU reaching a cost-effective climate-neutral future will have powerful ripple effects within the academic world, surrounding communities, and internationally.

At current levels, ASU will spend over $773 million on energy through 2025 with no intervention. This becomes the real financial baseline for its climate neutrality plan and for calculating the business case for a transformed university. As with any university, competition for capital dollars is fierce, and energy investments are competing with faculty salaries and new equipment. However, investments in energy efficiency are low-risk and yield attractive returns and improved occupant satisfaction. As RMI’s founder, Amory Lovins, says often, negawatts are cheaper than megawatts.

A HEAD START

ASU has already started in its race towards carbon neutrality. Facilities Management has installed over 22 megawatts of solar energy generation on site—providing eight percent of current electricity needs largely through power purchase agreements (PPAs). The university has also begun reducing energy consumption in buildings by leveraging energy service companies (ESCOs) with little upfront cost. More than 275 structures feed into an energy information system (EIS) for measurement and tracking. This represents 73 percent of ASU’s building energy and is a critical and valuable tool for managing and planning energy efficiency projects. In RMI’s work with large building portfolios, we have concluded that effective and accurate data management is one of the biggest barriers to achieving deep energy savings—regardless of the sophistication of the portfolio owner.

EXCITING ANALYSIS TOOLS

We are now in the exploration stage of creating the plan. This is a perfect opportunity to test some of the new remote auditing/analysis tools for building efficiency, and we are doing just that with Retroficiency and Simuwatt so far. The reality is that it’s simply too expensive to do full-blown energy models of every single building. And even if it wasn’t, this approach isn’t fast enough to tackle the energy issues we are facing at the scale required to combat climate change. Remote tools offer insights into buildings’ energy use without requiring labor hours to walk the building and build a model.

These exciting tools are emerging from all corners of the industry. Most need tweaking to work with large numbers of buildings, but they hold great promise for forecasting potential energy savings, recommending energy measures, and bundling entire building projects. The missing aspect to these tools is timing. We wish there were better prioritization features for right timing both broadly applied efficiency measures and comprehensive deep energy retrofits. Do you hear that, tool developers?

INNOVATIVE TRANSPORTATION SOLUTIONS

Transportation presents unparalleled opportunities for big thinking. How do we get ASU students, faculty, and staff excited about NOT driving their cars every day? The central Tempe campus already boasts excellent bike lanes coupled with arguably better parking for bikes than cars, and discounted public transportation. We’re looking into enabling more clean vehicle alternatives, leveraging ASU’s enormous transportation footprint to influence regional transportation planning, and reducing the need for trip chaining (running errands en route) by offering more services on campus. There are great examples of pioneering transportation programs that can be replicated in campuses across the country as parking space becomes a luxury and schools take on accountability for transportation carbon.

UC Davis, for example, has created a net-zero academic village located near the university. This is big. Light rail cuts right through the main ASU Tempe campus, making any stop on that line virtually adjacent to the university and presenting a tremendous opportunity for a public-private development similar to Davis. The prospects for innovative transportation solutions on campus are limitless.

There is no single effort or program that will accomplish climate neutrality. The implementation plan will follow a whole-systems approach of parallel paths, explored and performed simultaneously. Stay tuned for further installments of this story; navigating down implementation paths for building efficiency, alternative transportation, clean energy, and innovative policies and programs. We’ll share stories on the collaborative academic research underway on this project to push integrative and emerging technologies. ASU is on its way to carbon neutrality. Yes, this is radical!