Colorado College’s carbon neutrality is a first for the region

While other higher-ed institutions in the region have similar carbon neutrality goals, Colorado College became the first to reach it
NSO students visit the Baca Grande campus in Crestone where they helped build and install a new solar garden that will power all the buildings on site.

The leadership at Colorado College took a leap of faith to commit to a goal that took 11 years of hard work to accomplish.

In January, the private liberal arts college in Colorado Springs became the first higher education institution in the Rocky Mountain region to achieve carbon neutrality in its operations. The campus has reached zero net emissions in greenhouse gases in all operations for which they own or control, says Ian Johnson, Colorado College sustainability director.

“We went out on a limb and made an audacious stretch goal in 2009,” Johnson says. “It became part of our strategic plan and became a common understanding that we were all working for.”

Only nine North American colleges have reached carbon neutral status so far, according to Steve Muzzy, climate programs senior manager at Second Nature, a Boston-based nonprofit tracking those efforts. Larger Colorado institutions including University of Denver, Western Colorado University, Colorado State University and Colorado Mountain College are progressing toward carbon neutrality by 2050.

The carbon neutral pledge at the 100-acre Colorado College campus with an enrollment of 2,200 undergraduates required the work of students, faculty, staff and community partners. The college slashed overall on-campus emissions by 75% compared with the 2008 baseline, Johnson says. Efforts included energy efficiency retrofits in buildings, a 14-week campus behavioral change program and a large geothermal energy installation during a library renovation. Solar power installations play a large role with arrays on campus building rooftops, on the ground at a school facility near Crestone, and panels purchased in solar gardens through Colorado Springs Utilities.

The college purchased some verified carbon offsets for a methane capture project at a landfill in Colorado, yet Johnson says it is important for organizations to tackle the “hard work of reducing emissions as much as possible through conservation and efficiency first and to continue working to reduce those emissions even after looking to off-site investments.”

Johnson says energy efficiency improvements make good business sense: $1.5 million spent on campus sustainability projects during the past 10 years resulted in $6.6 million in avoided utility costs. The campus projects are scalable and replicable for other institutions to follow.

“We see that as part of our responsibility to be that model and educate others about this,” Johnson says. “The world in large part looks to higher ed institutions to provide answers to some of these tricky problems.”

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