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Local college seeks to become carbon neutral

Pacific University could get national cred as green school


by: CHASE ALLGOOD - Pacifics free bike-share program helps cut greenhouse gases every time someone borrows a bike instead of driving a car. Pacific students, staff, faculty and their guests can borrow bikes for 24 hours, along with helmets and lights.Pacific University’s new sustainability czar is pushing the Forest Grove school to become the first carbon-neutral college west of the Mississippi and one of only two in the whole country.

The designation — meaning the university would stop or offset all the earth-warming gases it now creates — would be good news for the planet and a marketing bonanza for Pacific.

Maine’s College of the Atlantic, the nation’s first school to go carbon- neutral back in 2006, "got a huge amount of publicity,” says Donna Gold, public relations director. “Undoubtedly some students came because they heard about that,” Gold says.

John Hayes, director of Pacific’s new Center for a Sustainable Society, wants the Forest Grove school to get similar attention. “I believe Pacific University could, if we make the commitment, within one year become carbon neutral,” Hayes says.

The school took a big step Nov. 14, when President Lesley Hallick signed the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, joining 664 other schools pledging to take serious action to reduce carbon emissions.

Being carbon neutral, also called climate neutral, “would certainly have cache,” Hallick says, though she thinks 2013 is too ambitious a deadline.

Carbon neutrality would be a surprising feat for a school that isn’t on Princeton Review’s list of “322 Green Colleges.” Or for a school where students, in their first environmental science class this year, took a pop quiz and couldn’t name a single greenhouse gas—not even carbon dioxide.

“And these are the ones that are interested in the stuff,” says Environmental Studies Director Deke Gunderson, who administered the quiz.

Pacific students may not be writing grant requests yet for solar panels or pressing the administration to stop burning fuel oil, as students are at other “green” colleges, but the school has achieved a number of environmental initiatives:

• Mass transit discounts, electric vehicle chargers, free bike sharing.

• Reusable food takeout containers, double-sided printing, recycled-content paper, energy-efficient appliances.

• A permaculture project and buy-local, organic and fair-trade food policies.

Also, Pacific's last four new buildings won Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) gold ratings from the U.S. Green Building Council.

The university added a fourth environmental studies major this year, in environmental policy, with concentrations in ethics, politics and government, history and economics.

Most of these initiatives were either enacted or suggested by the school’s six-year-old Sustainability Committee, which also recommended the creation of Hayes’ position.

Hayes says his most significant action was bringing the Climate Commitment to Hallick.

The commitment requires schools to tally the amount of greenhouse gases they are responsible for producing, and figure out how to reduce or offset them.

This is where Pacific lucks out. It requires less energy for heating and cooling than many other schools, due to the relatively mild climate. And as a customer of Forest Grove Light & Power, the school gets 80 percent of its electricity from hydro power, a renewable energy source.

Hayes needs to calculate the tonnage of carbon dioxide produced by the other 20 percent. That tally will be added to the 2,400 tons produced each year by the natural gas used to heat Pacific's buildings.

“We have to go over every bill for the last 12 months," he says. "There’s a foot-high stack.”

Then Hayes needs to calculate Pacific-related emissions from daily commuting and air travel. With the final tally of greenhouse gases in hand, the real work begins.

Carbon offsets would allow Pacific to make up for its emissions by reducing greenhouse gases elsewhere. For example, the university could buy methane digesters for Northwest dairy farmers to curb a pollutant 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

But Hallick isn’t sold on offsets.

“My personal interest is really in reducing energy usage,” she says. “There are some pretty simple things we can do.”

Solar water heaters, for example, give a return on investment in just three to five years, she says.

And Hallick wants to see students deeply involved in the investigation and experimentation needed to reach climate neutrality.

Hayes agrees, but thinks all that can happen after going carbon neutral. Any future energy reductions would steadily lower the offset cost.

In 2013, offsets would be the biggest expense of climate neutrality, Hayes says. He thinks that would cost less than $100,000, and that would be worth a lot more in marketing value.