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The Path to Carbon Neutrality

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In his second year at Kenyon, Matt Meyers ’17 was approached by Lauren Johnstone ’15 and Sarah Oleisky ’16 with a proposal. They were going to make Kenyon commit to carbon neutrality. 

Kenyon was falling behind. More than 680 other institutions had already signed on to the American College and University President’s Climate Commitment (ACUPCC), yet Kenyon was still not on the list. Johnstone, Oleisky, and Meyers wanted to change that. 

To accomplish their task, the three students formed an independent study in the spring of 2015 with Philip and Sheila Jordan Professor of Environmental Studies and Biology Siobhan Fennessy as their advisor. They spent several months researching how carbon neutrality and the ACUPCC could work at Kenyon and, at the very end, presented their findings to the Board of Trustees. 

The presentation itself was lively and ambitious. At one point, the group praised Oberlin College’s energy orbs — light bulbs placed in residence halls that glow different colors according to the building’s energy consumption. At another point, they mentioned the Finger Lakes Climate Fund, a community-based effort to offset carbon emissions in the Finger Lakes region of New York. 

“It was a lot of ideas honestly,” Meyers said. “We were kind of just giving them little sound bites about what the future could look like.” 

After the smoke had cleared, the Board was ready to sign on. The following year, on a Tuesday in the middle of February, President Decatur made the commitment official with a ceremony in Peirce Pub. Kenyon was on its way to becoming carbon neutral. How and when that would happen was very much up in the air. 

Now, almost two years after the initial signing, and as mandated by the ACUPCC’s guidelines, Kenyon must put out its first formal plan for carbon neutrality. Ideas and sound bites are one thing, but as the deadline in February approaches, how exactly will this plan work?

Environmentalism is not entirely new to Kenyon. The Philander Chase Conservancy has been purchasing land around Knox County for preservation since 2000, and the Brown Family Environmental Center is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, but in terms of carbon neutrality, Kenyon is far behind its peer institutions. 

Nearby Denison University signed the ACUPCC in 2010 and expects to be carbon neutral by 2030. Another neighbor, Oberlin College, was one of the 12 founding institutions of the ACUPCC in 2006 and expects to be carbon neutral by 2025. Middlebury College, which Director of Green Initiatives at Kenyon, Dave Heithaus ’99, noted as having “from top to bottom a culture of sustainability,” achieved carbon neutrality in 2016, the same year that Kenyon signed the ACUPCC. 

Part of this gap between Kenyon and other colleges can be attributed to Kenyon’s lack of resources. All three of the above institutions have endowments of over $700 million, whereas Kenyon’s sits closer to $200 million. When the ACUPCC was first announced in 2006, Kenyon made a conscious decision not to sign on. At the time, the college did not feel it was in the right financial place to make such a commitment. 

“They felt like it would be disingenuous to sign on just to be on the list,” Chief Business Officer Mark Kohlman said. 

Since then, economic feasibility has played a large role in all of Kenyon’s environmental decisions. In 2012, the college underwent a $7.4 million project with Ameresco, an energy conservation contractor based in Columbus, that retrofitted the heating, steam plant, and water systems, as well as many of the lighting fixtures on campus. The result was a 25 percent decrease in the college’s usage of water, electricity, and gas that generated savings of up to one million dollars per year. But even with such direct benefits, the project still required a long and arduous approval process before it could take place. Kohlman pointed out that $7.4 million is a lot of money for Kenyon. The project was completed in the fall of 2012 but was first proposed in the spring of 2009. 

There were also parts of the original proposal for the Ameresco project that were dropped because they didn’t provide enough return on the investment. The college passed on a biomass heating plant and a campus-wide window weather sealing because they added too much to the cost and provided too small of a return. 

Luckily, sustainability is becoming more economically feasible. Technologies are getting cheaper and offering quicker paybacks. The college is currently looking at several other efficiency projects besides the Ameresco project. Moving forward, carbon neutrality will have to find what Heithaus calls “the nexus of what’s good for business and what’s good for the planet.” 

The ACUPCC requires two things of a college once it has signed on. One is the formal plan, which must be released within two years of the college’s commitment, and the other is an immediate inventory of the college’s carbon output that is to be updated every year to track progress. This initial inventory was collected during the summer of 2016 by Office of Green Initiatives (OGI) interns Meyers, Laura Langner ’16, and Dani Huffman ’19. In their report, they included everything from the emissions of the goats and poultry raised at the Kenyon Farm to the emissions of student travel to and from campus. 

They divided Kenyon’s carbon dioxide equivalent (eCO2) emissions into three categories, or scopes: 

Scope one emissions are anything that come from sources directly controlled by the college. This includes kerosene, natural gas, generated solar power, and fuel used by campus vehicles, along with other smaller things, like applied synthetic chemicals. Scope one emissions account for about 5,000 metric tons of eCO2. 

Scope two is Kenyon’s purchased electricity. This accounts for about 15,000 metric tons of eCO2, or 60 percent of Kenyon’s eCO2 emissions. 

And scope three emissions are everything that is neither owned nor operated by the college. These are optional in corporate inventories, according to Huffman, but because they are still an important part of campus life, the group included them. These sources include commuting, travel to and from campus, study-abroad miles, solid waste, waste water, and paper products. They account for around another 5,000 metric tons of eCO2 per year. 

All in all, the group found Kenyon to be responsible for the emission of about 25,000 metric tons of eCO2 in 2016. That’s about 45 metric tons per campus user — which they defined to be students, faculty, and staff. The average eCO2 per person in the U.S., on the other hand, is about 21 metric tons, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. To achieve carbon neutrality, Kenyon will have to get that 25,000 down to zero. 

Director of Green Initiatives David Heithaus is the main person in charge of putting together Kenyon’s plan for becoming carbon neutral.

As of November, the plan is still a little unclear. Heithaus is the main person in charge of putting together the final draft. He doesn’t have any specific numbers, but he plans to use a green revolving fund to finance the college’s green initiatives. 

A green revolving fund is an amount of money the college sets aside to invest in efficiency projects like solar arrays or installing more efficient light fixtures. As the projects start to pay back their initial investments with energy savings, that money is put back into the fund to pay for more projects. 

The green revolving fund was proposed by another independent study. Meyers again took part, along with Miller Ward ’20, Sarah Stewart ’20, Lina Beron Echavarria ’20, and Carson Weisbord ’19, this time with Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies Rob Alexander as their advisor. 

But the green revolving fund is still just hypothetical. Much of the outcome depends on the initial investment the college is willing to make, which the Board of Trustees will decide. In their meetings this fall, the Board approved the implementation of the fund, although the initial investment hasn’t been made yet. 

“Right now, I could use our theoretical green revolving fund to fund theoretical projects. But none of that money is guaranteed,” Heithaus said. 

He will be compiling all the work done by students, the OGI and other staff members to come up with Kenyon’s own climate action plan. 

“The ball is in my court,” he said. “I just need to move it forward.” 

The three main methods for reducing Kenyon’s carbon footprint are: increasing efficiency, reducing use, and purchasing offsets. The first method, increasing efficiency, is perhaps the best route, since it is both easily defined and can pay for itself in the long run. Plus, the energy saved will produce tangible dollar savings that can be put back into the green revolving fund to pay for more carbon reduction measures in the future. 

The Ameresco project from 2012 will start returning a profit in a few years. Building off that, the college is moving forward with a solar thermal plant this year to assist in the heating of steam for use in most of South Campus. By using solar panels to help preheat incoming water, the project will decrease the amount of natural gas that the boiler will consume. Kohlman estimates that this project could cut down on around 50 percent of the boiler’s natural gas use and save the college around $100,000 a year. The project itself will cost around $300,000. 

“A three year payback? That’s absolutely doable,” Kohlman said. 

The project is a high priority going into the budgeting process in December but needs official approval from the Board of Trustees’ Buildings and Grounds Committee. Heithaus said the money for the project will be the seed money for further green revolving fund projects. 

Small fixes can also have big returns. Last May, the college cut the Kenyon Athletic Center’s (KAC) electric use by 19 percent, gas use by 47 percent, and water use by 32 percent, combining for a total dollar savings of $268,000 per year. This was all achieved by fixing valve and water leaks, and by adding an economizer to the chiller. 

In the future, Heithaus wants to install a solar array that could help power the KAC. He has several proposals right now, including one which he solicited from Zach Sawicki ’16, who now works for Community Renewable Energy, a solar company based in Columbus. 

His proposal is for a 16-and-a-half acre solar array containing around 13,000 solar modules. It would power the Meadow Lane energy loop at Kenyon, which includes the KAC. So far, he thinks it will produce 3,900 kilowatts of energy per year, which he believes will get close to offsetting 100 percent of the Meadow Lane energy loop’s electricity usage. In comparison, a typical residential solar array produces about 5 kilowatts, he said. 

Although he couldn’t disclose the estimated cost just yet, Sawicki felt that it was “being very competitive.” 

Heithaus referred to having a solar array as a question of “not if, but when.” 

Another method for reducing Kenyon’s carbon consumption and reducing energy use, involves changing student behavior. Erin Keleske ’18, the former president of Environmental Campus Organization (ECO) at Kenyon and a current OGI intern, believes a shift to sustainability can’t just be from the top down. 

“I can talk to the board of trustees about investing in green architecture as much as I want,” she said. “But if the students aren’t also meeting them halfway with changing the way we behave, we’re never going to get to where we need to be.” 

Personal behavior may seem insignificant, but Heithaus was quick to point out that “the aggregate” can make a big change. He noted the fact that if every student spent five minutes in the shower instead of ten, they would cut the college’s water use by almost 50 percent. 

Vice President for Library and Information Services Ron Griggs has been keeping track of how much paper is used at Kenyon’s printers for the past few years. In the 2016-17 academic year, 3,146,488 pieces of paper were used at Kenyon’s printers. If that amount of paper were stacked up, it’d be more than three-fourths the height of the Empire State Building. 

Equally as wasteful is Kenyon students’ practice of taking dishes out of Peirce Hall and not replacing them. The dining hall needs to replace about 6,500 dishes and cups a year, not including silverware, according to AVI Foodsystems’ Resident Director Chris Wisbey. 

These problems of consumption are unique to Kenyon’s culture: Unlike other schools like Oberlin, there is no limit on the pages students can print, and there is nothing stopping students from taking dishes out of the dining hall. 

Keleske is very familiar with the struggles of trying to get students to think about sustainability. She has tried countless methods of getting students to change their unsustainable ways, but she still isn’t sure what works. 

“So many things have been a hit or a miss,” she said. “Sometimes it works and sometimes you do the exact same thing and it doesn’t work.” 

So far, she has settled on reaching out to other student groups as a method for accessing a broader audience. Last September, she organized a cleanup of the Kokosing River for the OGI. She contacted the men’s lacrosse coach and invited the team to collaborate with them. The entire team ended up coming out to the work day to help. 

“Everything we do naturally is going to draw a certain crowd that is already interested in environmentalism,” she said. “We struggle to reach the people that otherwise wouldn’t have been reached.” 

Meyers, who was also a president of ECO and an OGI intern during his time at Kenyon, has a different opinion of what works. He recalls two separate events, both with the goal of shocking students, as being particularly effective. The first was a display that ECO did in his sophomore year. They took all the food waste produced from one day’s lunch and put it in clear bins in the Peirce atrium. The second was a protest he did as a senior and a member of DivestKenyon, a group that aims to get Kenyon to divest from industries it disapproves of, such as fossil fuels. In the display, he, along with two other seniors, poured oil on themselves and stood, tied-up, on the Peirce seal. He remembers both events generating a lot of conversation across campus. 

“When things are front and center involved in student life, students will talk about them and change will happen,” he said. 

Besides collaboration and activism, there is one other route to changing Kenyon’s culture of sustainability: education. Students are generally only at Kenyon for four years, so Keleske and the OGI find themselves targeting incoming students over existing students with the hope that, over time, Kenyon’s culture will change to be more conscious of its environmental impact. 

On top of that, the new environmental studies major, announced this fall, gives students a centralized way to learn about helping the environment. Assistant Professor of Physics and Computing Eric Holdener’s course, Solar Power Systems: Science, Policy and Practicum, gives students hands-on experience in the field of solar power. The first iteration of the class installed solar panels at the Kenyon Farm. 

“The farm solar is saving us about $3,000 to $4,000, which is real money, but the value of those solar projects is the educational component more so than the dollar savings,” Kohlman said. 

This year, the OGI is working with UCapture, a start up that kicks back money from online shopping to fund sustainability projects. 

The last main method for reducing Kenyon’s carbon footprint is offsets. Offsets don’t reduce carbon output; rather, they balance it. They often cost money too, but unlike methods of increasing efficiency, they don’t offer any payback. Because of this, Keleske referred to them as a “last resort.” 

The Philander Chase Conservancy has already been assisting with one method of offsets for 17 years. The trees that Kenyon owns, both on campus and in the patches of land purchased by the Conservancy, offset about 4,300 metric tons of eCO2 each year, according to Meyers. 

This year, the OGI is also working with UCapture, a startup they hope will offset some of Kenyon’s carbon output. 

UCapture uses affiliate marketing to fund reforestation, methane removal and renewable energy projects. For this to work, users have to sign up and download an app or an extension for their web browser. When they shop online at more than 2,000 companies that have partnered with UCapture, the program kicks back some of that money to UCapture to fund its projects. 

Because of Gambier’s rural location, online shopping has become an integral part of life at Kenyon. In 2016, the bookstore processed 23,470 packages. They expect about a 14.5 percent increase in 2017, which means around 26,900 packages. 

“Even though we look at online shopping as not sustainable, if we can take something that’s not sustainable and add a green component, I think that’s really valuable,” Keleske said. 

Stewart is the brand ambassador for UCapture at Kenyon. As of November 12, UCapture had 296 sign ups from Kenyon and has offset 25 tons of eCO2, according to her. That’s about 0.1 percent of Kenyon’s total carbon output. Stewart is looking to collaborate with sports teams and Greek life in the future to get more sign-ups. 

So, can Kenyon achieve carbon neutrality? In short, yes, but it will take some time. Many driven individuals are committed to seeing Kenyon through the process, yet Kenyon’s limited resources and other priorities slow progress. 

If the solar thermal project becomes the seed money for the green revolving fund, as Heithaus said it will, the fund will have to wait three years for the project to pay for itself and for money to start coming in. At that point, the fund will accrue about $100,000 a year. Considering bigger projects like the Ameresco project can cost millions, it will be a while before the fund can start paying for large scale changes. 

In the meantime, there are other things Kenyon can do besides cutting its carbon output. This is where Kenyon’s role as an institution of higher learning comes in. 

“The school has a responsibility to educate these students,” Meyers said. “These students are the future leaders in society.” 

Sawicki is a prime example of the school’s success in that field. A political science major and environmental studies concentration while he was at Kenyon, Sawicki took part in the first iteration of Holdener’s solar class. Now as an employee at a solar company, he finds himself applying his liberal arts skill set to whatever problem arises. 

“Working in the development space, there’s a lot of ambiguity and there are tons of problems,” he said. “You have to come up with multi-faceted and creative solutions to everything so being a liberal arts student has really prepared me for that.” 

And on that front, Kenyon seems to be doing just fine. It took a group of zealous students to get Kenyon to commit to carbon neutrality in the first place, and it will take many more to make sure it fulfills that commitment. 


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