Neutral carbon could bring positive-plus publicity

Pacific University’s new sustainability czar is pushing the school to become the first climate-neutral college west of the Mississippi and one of 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 could be a marketing bonanza for the university.

“We got a huge amount of publicity,” said Donna Gold, director of public relations for College of the Atlantic, the first school in the country to go climate neutral (also referred to as "carbon neutral" because of carbon dioxide's dominant presence among greenhouse gases), back in 2006.

Gold has a “pages and pages-long list” of media that covered the milestone at the 300-student college on an island off the coast of Maine. “Undoubtedly some students came because they heard about that,” she said.

John Hayes, director of Pacific’s new Center for a Sustainable Society, thinks the Forest Grove school could get similar attention. “I believe Pacific University could, if we make the commitment, within one year become carbon neutral,” he said. “We are uniquely poised in a variety of ways.”

The school moved a step closer to climate neutrality Nov. 14 when President Lesley Hallick signed the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, joining 664 other schools, from tiny private colleges to huge state universities.

The commitment is more than a feel-good gesture to Hallick.

“It requires anyone who signs on to actually have a plan to achieve climate neutrality as soon as possible,” she said. And it requires specific target dates along the way.

Hallick knows climate neutrality “would certainly have cache,” but thinks 2013 is “probably a little bit on the ambitious side” for Pacific.

Still, the school is closer than ever before, she said, because Hayes is compiling the hard data needed to analyze and cut energy use.

“In the past there was sort of a spray of good ideas, but there wasn’t data,” said Hallick, whose penchant for spreadsheets is well-known on campus.

Climate neutrality would be a surprising feat for a school that isn’t on the Princeton Review’s “Green Honor Roll” or even its list of “322 Green Colleges.”

Or for a school where students, in their first environmental science class of 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,” said Environmental Studies Director Deke Gunderson, who administered the quiz.

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

· mass-transit-pass discounts, electric-vehicle chargers, free bike sharing;

· reusable food-to-go containers, double-sided printing, recycled-content paper, energy-efficient appliances;

· a permaculture project and a buy-local/organic/fair-trade food policy.

The last four buildings Pacific constructed won gold LEED ratings (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) from the prestigious 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.

And in January, Pacific will offer two high-mileage, hybrid Zipcars to anyone in the Forest Grove community for $8 an hour, gas included.

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.

Since the Center for a Sustainable Society opened in July, Hayes said, 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, partly because it requires less energy for heating and cooling than many other schools, due to the relatively mild climate.

Also, as a customer of Forest Grove Light & Power, the school gets 80 percent of its electricity from hydropower, which is considered 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 said. "There’s a foot-high stack.”

Then Hayes needs to calculate Pacific-related emissions from daily commuting and air travel — a job he expects to finish by March.

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 said. “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 said.

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 climate neutral. Any future energy reductions would steadily lower the offset cost.

In 2013, offsets would be the biggest expense of climate neutrality, Hayes said. But even if they cost $100,000 — and they won’t, he said — that’s still barely more than one-tenth of one percent of the university’s annual budget, which this year is $93 million.

Pacific's strategy for reaching its goal will become clearer as officials develop their

2013-14 financial plan, which will be unveiled in March. “We’re assessing whether we can build a specific number of (greenhouse gas-reducing) requirements into next year’s budget,” Hallick said.

Hayes, meanwhile, believes the climate-neutral brand could be worth a lot more than $100,000 in marketing value. “That’s how I’m trying to sell it,” he said.

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