Current Issue

Feb. 3, 2010

Vol. 110, No. 8


Can the University meet its environmental goals?

By Mark F. Bernstein ’83
Published in the February 3, 2010, issue

Jessica Hsu ’10, left, and Eileen Zerba, a senior ­lecturer in ecology and evolutionary biology and director of undergraduate laboratories at the Princeton Environmental Institute, check sensors on top of a green roof of a Butler College dorm.
Denise Applewhite/Office of Communications
Jessica Hsu ’10, left, and Eileen Zerba, a senior ­lecturer in ecology and evolutionary biology and director of undergraduate laboratories at the Princeton Environmental Institute, check sensors on top of a green roof of a Butler College dorm.
Shana Weber, manager of Princeton’s Office of Sustainability
Beverly Schaefer
Shana Weber, manager of Princeton’s Office of Sustainability

If you want to save the planet, think for a minute about the simple plastic cup. Eight or 12 ounces, perhaps emblazoned with a Princeton logo — the University goes through thousands of them each month. It is hard to imagine Reunions or a Prospect Avenue party without them.  

Most of those cups are used once and thrown in the trash. Recycling notwithstanding, too many cups still end up choking landfills. One solution has been to substitute compostable, biodegradable cups — as well as straws, cutlery, and even dishes — made of corn or sugarcane.  

Problem solved? Planet saved? Not so fast, says Shana Weber, manager of the University’s Office of Sustainability. Corn cups may be an improvement, and Princeton increasingly uses them, but in the long run they are not sustainable, either. They decompose, but slowly. Furthermore, in order to produce them, millions of acres have been plowed up and converted to agricultural use, hastening the loss of open space and the associated problem of surface erosion.

To be truly sustainable — to employ practices that meet “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” in the words of a 1987 United Nations report that helped to launch the sustainability movement — people would reuse cups. Why do we need a new cup for every drink? Weber asks. Well into the 20th century, thirsty people used the same cups over and over and sipped from public fountains. Disposable cups were invented partly because those practices came to be seen as unsanitary, so it might be worth considering whether we would be willing to tolerate a rise in the incidence of communicable disease in order to preserve forests and wetlands.

The point is not to counsel despair. But plastic cups are a small and prickly problem that only suggests how complicated sustainable development really is to achieve. When Prince­ton unveiled its sustainability plan in February 2008, it ­committed itself to nothing less than transforming the way in which everyone on campus lives and works, from seemingly little things like what kind of soda cups to purchase,   to much bigger ones like how to generate heat and electricity. (Read the plan at   sustainability-plan-20080219/.)

Is that realistic? Princeton’s sustainability plan was intended to be not just a high-minded expression of aspirations, but a detailed plan of action against which progress could be measured. A little less than two years later, the University issued its first sustainability progress report (available at It shows significant advances on a wide range of fronts, but also identifies what remains to be done, and what might be undertaken in the future.

Princeton’s greenhouse-gas emissions of CO2 (carbon dioxide) rose during the 1980s and early 1990s, peaking at 115,455 metric tons in 1996. In that year, the cogeneration plant went into operation to supply steam, heat, and electricity, causing emission levels to drop sharply, to 98,000 metric tons, the following year. They then began rising steadily again over the next decade.

The University’s most ambitious goal is to reduce its overall greenhouse-gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. That is like trying to run down an up escalator because the University’s physical plant continues to grow — 1.5 million square feet of space has been built since 1990 — and those new buildings have sent energy demands soaring. If no action were taken, the Office of Sustainability estimates that the University would produce 176,000 metric tons of CO2 annually by 2020, a 54 percent increase from 2007 levels. Instead, Princeton has committed itself to cutting that level to 95,000 metric tons, a 16.7 percent decrease from 2007.

Much already has been done. The cogeneration plant, which accounts for 85 percent of Princeton’s carbon emissions, received the U.S. EPA Energy Star Combined Heat and Power (CHP) award in 2007. In September, a direct heat exchanger was installed to capture and reuse heat that otherwise would be wasted, which is expected to reduce overall campus emissions by more than 3.5 percent. Princeton also has received a permit to run part of the cogeneration plant on biodiesel fuel, derived from vegetable oil or animal fat, and is making arrangements with suppliers.  

Many existing campus buildings are being retrofitted. Incandescent light bulbs, Weber says, are being replaced by longer-lasting compact fluorescent light bulbs. Going that one better, whenever possible Weber works in her office with the lights turned off, relying on the natural sunlight. Solar panels have been installed at the Research Collections and Preservation Consortium (ReCAP) building on the Forrestal campus, and a smaller one will sit atop the new chemistry building. The Lawrence Apartments and the newly renovated Campus Club both use geothermal heat.

Princeton’s Design Standards Energy Guidelines mandate that all new projects and major renovations achieve energy savings that are at least 30 percent greater than the international building code of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers. Achieving those levels can be daunting because some new dormitories have air conditioning — a necessity, says Thomas Nyquist, the University’s director of engineering, because Princeton hosts more camps and conferences during the summer months. Nevertheless, innovations have helped reduce the amount of energy these buildings use. Sherrerd Hall, which houses the Department of Operations Research and Financial Engineering and the Center for Information Technology Policy, is 47 percent more energy-efficient than the code requires, thanks in part to the use of more thermally efficient glass and a green roof.  

Science laboratories, which have accounted for much of the new campus construction, have proven to be a particular challenge in meeting that 30 percent threshold. They can be energy hogs, because ventilation systems must be bigger and run longer to protect experiments and ensure that potentially toxic fumes are cleaned out. New fume hoods that close automatically when not in use and adjust the amount of air that must be ventilated will make the new chemistry building — scheduled to open by the end of 2010 — 30 percent more efficient than code requires, although the neuroscience and psychology buildings are projected to be only 24 percent more efficient.  

Future campus construction projects also will be designed to the equivalent of Leadership in Energy and Environ­mental Design (LEED) Silver status, a level to which many universities around the country have committed themselves.  

At the same time, however, the University has opened buildings that are decidedly less eco-friendly, specifically collegiate gothic Whitman College and the Frank Gehry-designed Lewis Library, both of which were designed before the sustainability guidelines were adopted. Weber counters that collegiate gothic buildings still could be built under the sustainability guidelines and that Whitman is more energy-efficient than it may appear, but concedes that another Gehry-type building, with its odd, hard-to-heat shapes, probably could not be built, even to secure the services of such a famous architect. “If you start making exceptions [to the guidelines],” she says, “you lose credibility.” Associate professor Denise Mauzerall, who led a Woodrow Wilson School task force called “Development of Policy Initiatives for the Sustainable Use of Energy at Princeton University,” is optimistic: “Marvelous buildings can absolutely still be built at Princeton under the new sustainable-design guidelines,” she says, especially as new technology increases comfort and energy-efficiency. “Although initial capital costs may be ­higher,” she says, “due to energy savings, total costs over the lifetime of the building are likely to be lower.”

Princeton always has been a walkable campus, but surveys have shown that more than 70 percent of faculty and staff commute to campus each day as the sole occupant of a passenger vehicle, helping to make transportation the second-largest source of campus CO2 emissions. The sustainability plan includes numerous efforts to reduce automobile traffic and increase mass transit, many of which, though only recently introduced, are starting to show results. More than 130 employees have signed up for a ride-sharing database, 67 receive $25 gas cards for joining a car pool, and another 120 receive subsidies for taking the bus or train to work. Fourteen new University vehicles run on biofuels.  

University officials acknowledge, however, that they have identified only 70 percent of the changes they will need to make in order to cut greenhouse-gas emissions back to 1990 levels. Identifying the remaining 30 percent is one of the jobs for William Broadhurst, who was hired last summer as the campus energy manager and is developing an energy master plan. That master plan will encompass an audit of the 50 most-used buildings on campus, which in turn will help identify those that could benefit most from retrofitting HVAC and lighting systems. He anticipates that the plan will be complete by the summer of 2011.

The University insists that sustainability efforts save money in the long run, which is why Executive Vice President Mark Burstein has pledged that most projects will not be sacrificed during the current economic slump. Because environmental costs often are difficult to calculate and represent what economists call externalities, the University has implemented its own “CO2 tax,” which will give those concerns a value to be used when conducting cost-benefit analyses as to the advisability of adopting more energy-efficient projects or designs. The CO2 tax led the University to plan for geothermal heat at the ReCAP facility, Weber says — but that project was canceled because of broader budgetary constraints. The CO2 tax also might make greater use of wind energy a possibility, but wind power — which is not yet readily available in central New Jersey — is expensive, as are other alternative energy sources. How much money should Princeton spend to achieve its environmental goals when those dollars are needed for financial aid, professors, and new labs? That’s the type of question that University officials will be asking more frequently in coming years.  

Are Princeton’s sustainability projects having any effect? Evidence suggests that they are. Campus electricity usage increased by only 2.6 percent between 2007 and 2009, despite the opening of two new buildings. According to the sustainability status report, overall greenhouse-gas emissions turned downward very slightly, by nearly 1 percent, between July 2008 and July 2009, the first measurable decrease since the cogeneration plant began operating in 1996.  

That still leaves a long way to go to reach 1990 emissions levels. Paul Rowland, executive director of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, calls Princeton’s greenhouse-gas target — “reachable, but very ambitious.” Nyquist agrees, saying, “It’s a difficult goal, and it was set out to be difficult on purpose.”  

If the University can cut its emissions by just 1.5 percent per year for the next decade, it should reach its target, says Dennis Markatos-Soriano *08, who served as the graduate consultant to a 2007 policy task force on sustainable energy at Princeton. (Today, he is executive director of the East Coast Greenway Alliance, which is developing a trail system between Canada and Key West, Fla.)  

Princeton’s greenhouse-gas reduction target, which matches that set by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (as well as those chosen by the states of California, Hawaii, Illinois, and Washington), was chosen after study by an environmental oversight committee, with contributions from a 2007 undergraduate seminar, “Toward an Ethical CO2 Emissions Trajectory for Princeton,” which was offered through the Princeton Environmental Institute (PEI). That course explored what other academic, civic, and nonprofit groups were proposing and what the University could achieve at a reasonable cost.  

Other colleges and universities, however, have chosen different targets, which makes comparisons difficult. Judging strictly by the numbers, Princeton’s goal seems conservative.   Dartmouth, for example, seeks to achieve emissions 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Brown seeks to get its emissions 15 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, but only for existing buildings. Harvard seeks a 30 percent reduction from 2006 levels by 2016. But without detailed analysis, experts say, it’s impossible to compare the programs. Several point out that institutions that have done the least so far can propose larger reductions going forward than those that already have made the easiest and most obvious changes.

Nevertheless, several institutions already are reporting significant greenhouse reductions. The College of the Atlantic claims to be carbon neutral, while Bowdoin College has reduced its greenhouse-gas emissions by 11 percent since 2002.   However, the two Maine colleges have significantly smaller campuses and student bodies than does Princeton, and both have relied heavily on wind power from generators in the Maine mountains.  

Many universities also claim to have reduced their greenhouse emissions by buying carbon offsets, a practice in which an institution does not cut its own carbon emissions, but instead pays another group or person in another part of the world to reduce its emissions. Princeton has insisted that it meet its targets without buying offsets.

“Ethically, we have a problem with them,” Weber says. “They can be a short-term transitional strategy, but they aren’t a long-term solution.” James Kuczmarski ’08, a business analyst for McKinsey & Co. who studied sustainability efforts at other universities while a student at the Woodrow Wilson School, agrees. “It is easy,” he says, “for a university to take the easy way out and get carbon neutrality by buying it.” Mauzerall points out that Princeton’s approach guarantees “that the [additional] reductions are actually occurring” — something that’s not as certain with offsets.

“With the resources we have at Princeton, including our leading climate scholars, I think we can catch up and even leap ahead of many of our peers,” Markatos-Soriano says.   “But it will take serious commitment from University leadership, the student body, and our alumni community to make such a climate success story possible.”

One sore point for many is Princeton’s unwillingness to sign the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (PCC), in which signatories pledge to make their campuses carbon neutral and increase sustainability programs and awareness. More than 660 institutions have signed, and although Penn and Cornell are the only Ivy League institutions to have done so, neither has set a target date for achieving carbon neutrality.  

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1 Response to Can the University meet its environmental goals?

Jenny Trier Says:

2010-02-07 16:22:38

I have followed the efforts made by Shana Weber in her role as Sustainability Manager. I am impressed with the integrity of her work and the goals for Princeton in meeting a high standard in reducing its environmental footprint. Her vision and the vision of her colleagues needs support for our health and the health of the planet. If each campus, each area, does its share in this endeavor we can meet those goals. This is not being overly optomistic but we must stay the course starting now, not tomorrow!
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CURRENT ISSUE: Feb. 3, 2010