Campus & Community

Taming the energy beast

6 min read

Harvard makes progress in trimming greenhouse gas emissions

While officials from many nations gather in Copenhagen to debate further action against climate change, Harvard University is taking action on its own.

Last year the University pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent by 2016, inclusive of growth, with 2006 as a baseline year.

Meeting the ambitious goal “is both urgent and difficult,” said Harvard University President Drew Faust, who appointed a task force on greenhouse gas reduction in 2007. Such reductions “are not just Harvard issues,” she said earlier this year. “They are part of the national agenda.”

Greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide and methane, contribute to global warming by trapping heat in earth’s atmosphere. Perhaps 40 percent of the emissions are tied to making the energy required for lighting, heating, and cooling buildings.

On Monday (Dec. 14), Harvard released its first data on the University’s progress toward meeting the pledge. In fiscal 2006-09, greenhouse gas emissions dropped 10 percent University-wide. With growth factored in, that reduction is about 5 percent.

The cuts came from energy-efficiency projects in buildings, more than half from efficiency improvements at Harvard’s Blackstone energy plant and its new chilled-water plants.

According to Thomas E. Vautin, Harvard’s acting vice president for administration, greenhouse gas emissions at the Blackstone plant have already dropped by 28 percent as a result of improvements. These include changing the primary fuel source to natural gas, and installing a new steam boiler, as well as a high-efficiency combined heat and power generating system.

“These are smart choices that will have a long-term positive impact on the environment and the cost of our operations,” said Katherine Lapp, Harvard’s new executive vice president. She will oversee the implementation of the University’ greenhouse gas reduction plan.

The bulk of future emissions reductions will have to come from greater energy efficiency in Harvard’s buildings, said Heather Henriksen, director of Harvard’s Office for Sustainability (OFS).

Mostly, that means optimizing building operations, especially when occupants are not present, as well as deploying conservation measures. But it also means behavioral changes, like shutting fume hoods, turning off computers, switching off lights, and setting what Henriksen called “other pragmatic defaults.”

In November, each Harvard School and unit completed comprehensive draft plans for greenhouse gas reductions — blueprints for how they can meet the 30 percent goal, and for how much money. Once finalized, those plans will be incorporated into a master policy for University-wide reductions.

OFS spearheaded an implementation planning process that included a Harvard University Greenhouse Gas Executive Committee and targeted working groups. The idea was to streamline the assessment process and to convene the Schools and units so they could share best practices.

The executive committee co-chairs are Jeremy Bloxham, dean of science at Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences; Robert S. Kaplan, professor of management practice at the Harvard Business School; and Lapp.

The task force — about 200 staff members, faculty, administrators, and students — met regularly this year in five working groups: finance, building efficiency and demand management, energy supply, greenhouse gas inventory, and communications and engagement.

The initial infrastructure is now in place, said Kaplan, including an updated methodology to inventory greenhouse gas emissions and a common framework for cost-benefit analysis. “OFS ran a collaborative process, and the working groups, comprised of School and unit leaders, created alignment across the University,” Kaplan said. “We now have a much more integrated assessment of the University, and we are moving forward to create and implement an effective University-wide plan.”

In a mid-year meeting with working group members, Faust listened to updates. Afterward, she said the collaboration should be a model for future action at Harvard and other universities.

“This is not just a set of solutions to one of the most important problems we face on the planet,” she said, but a way to “attack” other big issues that require large-scale cooperation.

A sixth working group, with heavy participation from the faculty, will start meeting early in the new year. It will analyze options for closing gaps in the goals over time. Not every school may be able to meet the 30 percent goal by 2016, said Henriksen, so backup solutions are needed to help make up the difference.

Among other strategies, the “gaps” working group will look at creative options, including Renewable Energy Credits, energy from renewable sources, and investing in local carbon offset projects.

A Student Advisory Group, made up of 50 students from each of Harvard’s 10 Schools, will approach greenhouse gas emissions from a student perspective. The group will report its recommendations by the end of the spring semester.

In addition, Harvard adopted a University-wide temperature policy designed to reduce energy use. It was designed with attention to human health and comfort and to legal codes. Helping in its creation was John “Jack” Spengler, Akira Yamaguchi Professor of Environmental Health and Human Habitation at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH).

Harvard’s Schools and units have completed basic energy audits for most buildings and are midway through comprehensive audits to be completed by 2011. (The University manages 26 million square feet of space in 700 buildings.) At the same time, the University has also completed audits of its central steam and chilled-water plants for energy conservation.

As University buildings are more efficiently heated, cooled, and lighted, more of Harvard’s reduction in greenhouse gases will depend on individual action and on reducing energy demand, said Henriksen. Her office oversees programs on changing behavior in offices, classrooms, dormitories, and laboratories.

These are values already “held very deeply” at Harvard, Faust said, and there are signs she is right. Since 2007, more than 15,000 Harvard staffers, students, and faculty have signed a sustainability pledge, which is renewed each year.

Harvard also has the highest recycling rate in the Ivy League at 55 percent, gets about 16 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, and has 66 LEED-certified or registered projects, the most of any institution of higher education. (LEED, a U.S. system of green-building standards, stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.)

“Energy use varies widely across the University, from energy-dense laboratories to offices to student houses, each posing very different challenges in reducing our emissions,” said Bloxham, who is also Mallinckrodt Professor of Geophysics and a professor of computational science. He praised the collaborative ethic of the working groups, as well as the OFS planning.

When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, said Bloxham, “the problem belongs to all of us.”

To view a snapshot of Harvard’s emission reductions.