A student-driven initiative aims for campus carbon neutrality within decades.
Story by Mary Keister, photos by Jodi Miller
On any given weekday morning at Kenyon, students will wearily turn the knobs for a hot shower before their 8 a.m. classes. A barista will flip on the lights at Wiggin Street Coffee and start grinding beans for the day’s stream of visitors. Faculty and staff members will climb into their vehicles and flow onto Ohio’s roads for their commutes to Gambier.
Kenyon’s Director of Green Initiatives Dave Heithaus ’99 and his student interns are tracking all of these actions — or rather, how much energy they consume. Fanning out across campus last summer, interns Dani Huffman ’19, Laura Langner ’16 and Matt Meyers ’17 collected thousands of gas station receipts, travel documents, electricity bills and more from the previous year in an effort to track precisely how much energy it takes to run Kenyon during the course of an average year.
Their work is part of a new carbon neutrality initiative signed into action by President Sean Decatur in February 2016. By joining the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, now known as the Second Nature Carbon Commitment, Decatur pledged Kenyon to work toward achieving a net zero carbon footprint within decades.
“Climate change is really the issue of our lifetimes and of the next generation’s as well,” Decatur said. “Educational institutions have a particularly important role to take the lead in this as a model and an example of what can be done.”
Kenyon’s carbon neutrality process took root in an independent study project two years ago. Meyers, Lauren Johnstone ’15 and Sarah Oleisky ’16, together with Professor of Biology Siobhan Fennessy, the Philip and Sheila Jordan Professor in Environmental Studies, wanted to examine how Kenyon could become a leader in sustainability. During the course of their project, the students realized that Kenyon already had been taking some steps to reduce its carbon footprint. With a stronger push and more institutional support, they thought, Kenyon could attain full carbon neutrality in a short timeframe. The students presented their plan to the Board of Trustees, and with the board’s approval in hand, joined forces with Decatur and Heithaus to sign the pledge and begin the march toward a net zero carbon footprint.
Anatomy of a footprint
To achieve carbon neutrality, the College first needed to know exactly what its carbon footprint entailed. Heithaus and his interns set out on an ambitious mission last summer to gather data on employees’ commutes, students’ travel for off-campus study programs, athletic travel to away games, how far students traveled home for school breaks, electricity consumed by the College, solid waste disposal and more.
“The interns were really aggressive in digging into some very boring data,” Heithaus said. “I mean, they were bothering the grounds department for how many grams of fertilizer we used. At one point, I think they had 6,000 pages of air travel documents.”
The bulk of the College’s carbon emissions proved easy to track — about 80 percent of the emissions were due to purchased utilities, which is meticulously documented online by local utility companies. Heithaus and his interns could break down how much electricity Kenyon consumed by venturing back through monthly power bills.
Calculating other parts of their emissions inventory presented different challenges and required some guesswork. How far do students, faculty and staff members drive in any given year? How many people carpool? If students went home to the East Coast on spring break, were they more likely to drive or to fly?
The students compiled data on carbon emissions from all corners of Kenyon. The Office of Admissions gave numbers on how many miles prospective students flew to visit campus. The Center for Global Engagement tracked how far students traveled to off-campus programs. Grounds Manager Steve Vaden helped the team sort through old paper invoices to decipher how much fertilizer — organic and non-organic — was spread on campus in the past year. Michael Knight, manager of Kenyon’s print shop, helped the students track how much paper Kenyon employees had used.
Deciding which data to include in the inventory proved challenging, Huffman said.
“Some things don’t happen on Kenyon’s campus, but they happen because Kenyon exists, like a lot of study-abroad travel,” she said. “It is very tough to draw that line, but we tried to be as encompassing as possible.”
Once they had unearthed as many sources of carbon emissions as possible, the students plugged their findings into software maintained by the University of New Hampshire that calculated exactly how much carbon was emitted by one gallon of gas, one gram of fertilizer, one mile of air travel and so on.
Working on the inventory has changed the way Huffman considers her daily life at Kenyon. “I can say, ‘I want to use less electricity,’ but I’m living in Old Kenyon, and it’s whatever electricity I have there,” she said. “I play on the field hockey team, and I wish we didn’t need to travel all the time, but that’s part of our schedule.”
Living the green(er) life
Achieving carbon neutrality requires two major long-term drives: improving the infrastructure of the College and changing the behavior of its community members.
Through a “Green Lifestyles” program, the Office of Green Initiatives is helping Kenyon students and employees remember simple actions that can cut down on energy usage — taking shorter showers, turning off lights and taking the stairs instead of an elevator, if physically able. Participants self-report their sustainable actions on a checklist and are rewarded with various prizes, including dinner with Decatur or free coffee at Wiggin Street.
Some aspects of a greener lifestyle have come about naturally, with technology making it easier to live a more sustainable life. During the energy inventory, Meyers was heartened to find that overall paper usage by public printers at Kenyon has decreased in the past two years, possibly because more students are turning in papers electronically and are using laptops and tablets in class instead of printing out long class readings. “I think professors are finally coming to terms with allowing some technology in class,” he said.
Kenyon’s local foods program, conducted by AVI Foodsystems, helps balance the plate as well. Approximately 42 percent of the food served in Peirce Hall is sourced locally, so it has fewer miles to travel from farm to table, cutting down fuel emissions. The local farms also tend to operate on a smaller scale, without larger machinery, translating into a more sustainable way of producing food.
But without intervention by Heithaus and his team, other aspects of a green lifestyle may be more difficult to obtain. Recycling bins across campus are in short supply, and although some housing, such as the North Campus Apartments, features spacious kitchens, the College is still figuring out an efficient way to collect and compost food waste created by students’ culinary adventures.
“It’s too restrictive to think that people should be personally responsible for being environmentally friendly when the infrastructure they live in does not allow them to do so,” Meyers said. “We can’t ask people to recycle more when they don’t have recycling bins at their houses.”
Recycling bins alone won’t be enough to get Kenyon across the finish line for carbon neutrality. Minimizing Kenyon’s carbon footprint requires a close look at Kenyon’s infrastructure, including its buildings, some of which consume massive amounts of energy just to stay functional.
There is a whole hidden world right here. The mechanical room in Horvitz is like a work of mechanical art."
Dave Heithaus '99, director of green initiatives
“There is a whole hidden world right here. The mechanical room in Horvitz is like a work of mechanical art, appropriately enough,” Heithaus said, noting the high energy efficiency of the studio art building, which opened in 2012. “But (the mechanical room) downstairs at Gund Commons is like a scene from ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’. It’s expertly maintained, but at the end of the day, it’s using technology that’s 50 years old.”
Kenyon participates in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), a worldwide green building certification program, and the College’s building policy requires all new construction to adhere to at least LEED silver equivalence. New construction in downtown Gambier and a proposed project for a new academic commons provide opportunities for erecting sustainable buildings, and as the College improves on existing buildings to make them more accessible, it is approaching projects with the twin goal of boosting energy efficiency.
“Keeping energy efficiency at the forefront of our minds when we’re doing a renovation project means that the climate commitment isn’t an extra thing that we’re doing — it’s just something that we’re baking into the decisions that we’re making along the way,” Decatur said.
Even newer buildings require a constant examination of energy consumption. An inspection at the Kenyon Athletic Center last summer revealed a damaged energy wheel, which recycles air to heat and cool the building. The installation of a new wheel yielded a 46 percent improvement in efficiency.
Kenyon’s stewardship of its trees, which absorb carbon dioxide, also plays a role in its carbon emissions scorecard. Ecology students, led by Professor of Biology Drew Kerkhoff, tested leaf litter samples and soil respiration rates around campus to determine how much carbon dioxide was being reabsorbed from the atmosphere naturally each year by trees. They discovered that Kenyon’s extensive treescape was soaking up nearly 4,500 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year — offsetting almost 15 percent of the College’s total annual carbon emissions. Through its work with the Philander Chase Conservancy, Kenyon is working to acquire and preserve more woodlots — meaning the percent of emissions offset naturally by trees each year will grow.
A balancing act
What happens when buildings are operating at peak efficiency, everyone on campus is feverishly recycling and Kenyon still hasn’t attained carbon neutrality?
Heithaus and his team will need to look toward purchasing carbon offsets, small investments in sustainability projects that are meant to cancel out unavoidable carbon emissions.
Carbon offsets can include investments in areas such as land management, reforestation, improved access to water and solar panels. The 19 kilowatts of solar panels at the Kenyon Farm currently offset the emissions created each year by two 12-passenger vans in Kenyon’s fleet.
The marketplaces for carbon offsets are not unlike a less regulated Amazon or eBay. Anyone with extra cash can search online for a carbon offset and invest in a plot of rainforest in Brazil. Some airlines even allow passengers to directly purchase an offset and donate to carbon reduction projects when they book their tickets. Kenyon works with Second Nature, a group monitoring carbon neutrality efforts at colleges, to identify which carbon offset marketplaces are the most reliable.
Heithaus said Kenyon also is examining local opportunities to offset carbon emissions, such as working with Habitat for Humanity and Knox County homeowners to create more energy-efficient houses.
“If I won the Powerball a couple months ago, I could have just bought carbon neutrality (through offsets), but I don’t think that’s the way we want to do it,” Heithaus said. “We are going to need to be creative.”
Offsets will be necessary to compensate for the amount of emissions students, faculty and staff members cause when they travel back and forth from the Hill. Kenyon’s location in rural Ohio means athletes must travel farther to away games, and students and employees living in Gambier have a longer distance to drive to the nearest major airport, in Columbus. The high number of students who take advantage of Kenyon’s many off-campus study programs creates millions of air travel miles that will need to be balanced with offsets.
“You can’t just stop producing carbon dioxide,” Heithaus said. “We’re not going to mothball our study abroad program or make ourselves an online college, so there’s a cost to doing business.”
The next generation
Because the carbon-neutrality process was jumpstarted by students, Heithaus and Decatur want to ensure that students play a key part throughout the process, even if it takes time.
“If we’re doing something as it pertains to sustainability, and if we’re not involving a student in that, we’re completely ignoring our core mission,” Heithaus said. “We’re here to educate folks. We don’t have a farm to grow potatoes, we have a farm to teach. We don’t have an environmental center just to protect the trees, we have it so the trees are there to enjoy and interpret and reflect on.”
Students are the chief implementers of the green lifestyles program, convincing and encouraging their peers and professors to adopt greener habits. Through Kerkhoff’s classes, students have gathered information on carbon levels in Gambier’s standing biomass. An independent study class conducted through the Physics Department has resulted in the installation of student-designed solar panels at the Kenyon Farm, with plans in place to erect more panels around campus. And student interns play an important role in tracking Kenyon’s emissions.
“We were told by many professors that they thought we would not have been as successful as we’ve been so far if it wasn’t student-driven,” said Meyers, one of the students involved with the initial carbon-neutrality study.
We were told by many professors that they thought we would not have been as successful as we've been so far if it wasn't student-driven."
Matt Meyers '17, green initiatives intern
A new environmental studies major will soon bolster students’ sustainability efforts on campus. Currently a popular concentration, the interdisciplinary major is expected to draw upon classes from numerous departments, including biology, economics, anthropology, sociology and political science.
“If there’s some way that we can get students as part of their intellectual experience solving real college problems — gosh, what a fabulous capstone experience,” Heithaus said. “I’m excited about what our students will be able to do through that major.
“They have come of age at a time when (climate change) has largely been accepted as a reality and a kind of terrifying one,” Heithaus added. “We’re about to leave them a pretty chunked-up planet. They get it.”
LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a certification program recognizing green buildings that’s administered by the U.S. Green Building Council. It rates buildings based on the energy efficiency of their design, construction and operation. The program, which certifies around 1.85 million square feet daily, offers four levels of certification: certified, silver, gold and platinum, the top rating. Construction projects accumulate points based on their location, building materials, water efficiency and more, and the points determine the level of certification the project can attain. All new construction at Kenyon is required to be built at the LEED silver level of certification at a minimum.
From Alumni Magazine - Winter 2017
Not sure what “carbon footprint” and other terms mean? Here’s a quick primer:
Carbon footprint: The overall amount of greenhouse gas emissions caused by an individual or an institution through its activities.
Carbon offset: A small investment in a sustainability or renewable energy project that is meant to balance out carbon emissions from unavoidable actions such as commuting or student travel. Examples of offsets include the purchasing and preservation of woodlots or the installation of solar panels.
Carbon neutrality: The state that is achieved when the amount of carbon emitted by an institution is balanced by the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed naturally (through trees) and through carbon offsets. Also known as “net zero.”