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Penn State Winning the Sustainability Game

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When I say “Penn State,” you say “PARTY!” For over a decade, The Princeton Review has listed Penn State as a top party school and rumor has it they know a thing or two about football. But what about cutting greenhouse emissions? Turns out they’re good at that too. As the sprawling campus city in central Pennsylvania grows, their greenhouse emissions are shrinking by nearly half. And most remarkably, the reduction is paying off — a Nittany lion’s share and then some. 

Wouldn’t the shift to renewable energy be expensive at a place like Penn State with over 600 major buildings comprising 22 million square feet housing 14,000 residents and 65,000 commuters, not to mention tens of thousands more showing up for football games? It did cost something — time and foresight. 

In the mid-1990s, a group of students became concerned about rising greenhouse emissions on campus. They banded together with university engineers and maintenance staff, led by retired Navy officer Ford Stryker. After making some calculations, they gave the university a barely passing grade in environmental performance. Stryker then persuaded Penn State to set up a revolving fund, essentially loans with interest, for upgrades to reduce greenhouse emissions. The fund covered a whole slew of projects that ultimately cut the university’s demand for energy so significantly that it was paid off within ten years. 

IMAGE: Penn State x

Saving energy isn’t always rocket science. First, the university tuned-up its campus HVAC systems and closely monitored  airflow and temperature. Eventually, they switched their central fuel source from coal to natural gas, reducing the amount of carbon dioxide released when heating the campus. The results were clear: greenhouse emissions declined nearly a third, compared to 2004, when the university hit its peak. 

Penn State is seeking to lead on renewable building.  IMAGE: UNSPLASH: x

Recently, the university signed a deal to buy electricity from a local solar farm to further reduce campus emissions by 50 percent. More broadly compared with national emissions standards across the U.S., whose total carbon dioxide emissions peaked in 2007 and have since fallen by only 12 percent, it looks like Penn State is once again ahead of’ the game. 

Late Nobel laureate Richard Smalley said energy is the single greatest problem facing humanity. Ever up for a challenge, Penn State has launched the Energy 2100 initiative, focusing on research technologies that convert energy from renewable sources into electricity and fuels. The university is projected to be a completely renewable campus in 10 years, and that may be the most important game they could ever win. 


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