Opinion | The shift away from coal on campus

Published by Jessica Crandell, Date: September 13, 2022
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In the early 2000s, Slippery Rock University signed a Climate Action Plan. This plan focused on making the campus carbon neutral by 2037 as a way for SRU to do their part in solving the climate crisis in time.

Throughout the years, this plan has been updated and re-signed by presidents to adapt to modern solutions. This effort for carbon neutrality is still pushed today, but major initiatives must be taken soon to reach their goal. The pace of climate change has increased so much in recent years that scientists now refer to it as the “climate crisis.”

According to Second Nature, in the state of Pennsylvania, Allegheny College and Dickinson College have already achieved carbon neutrality. As well as other schools in New York, Maine, Vermont, Colorado, Washington D.C. and California.

What is carbon neutral?

It is the state of net-zero carbon emissions – the balance between emitting carbon dioxide and absorbing it back into our environment. The heating on campus has been powered by a central steam system using coal. Going carbon neutral would mean using another non-fossil fuel source, like geothermal energy, to power heating and cooling.

By eliminating the use of fossil fuels on campus and investing in renewable electricity, SRU will only need to address a few more items (like student and staff commuting emissions) to become carbon neutral.

It would also mean finding ways to build carbon-absorbing ecosystems, known as carbon sinks, on campus. This could involve planting more trees or allowing patches of grass to grow to their carbon sequestering potential. The last option for complete carbon neutrality are carbon credits, which are purchased from third party actions pulling carbon from the air.

With this knowledge, several students on campus took the initiative to start a petition as a part of the 2020 Global Climate Strike. At the head of the movement was Kaitlin Karaffa, an SRU alum, who was an undergrad at the time.

Another alumna, Cori Rockefeller, helped to spread awareness about this petition through the Sustainable Solutions club and environmental classes on campus. Student voices are crucial for movements like that to gain traction with the administration.

This group was able to compile over 900 signatures to get a meeting with SRU President William Behre and explain why this mission is critical for SRU’s future. Many changes to efficiency and energy consumption have been made to green the campus, but now major energy swaps are needed on campus to keep up with the goals of the Climate Action Plan.

So, what was the outcome of this petition?

In 2021, SRU partnered with carbon neutrality professionals, Ever-Green Energy, to study the potential to jump-start this ongoing initiative. The team conducting this effort included Ever-Green Energy, SRU representatives and interns and Penn State Facilities Engineering representatives. The planning effort was offered as pro bono services by Ever-Green Energy, with financial support provided by the West Penn Power Sustainable Energy Fund.

The study of SRU’s feasibility for going carbon neutral concluded with multiple solutions. Ray Watts, the consulting engineer at Ever-Green Energy, compiled different methods, including geothermal, biofuels, refrigerant coolants, and electric boilers. All of these were presented as solutions for SRU administration to choose from.

During the meeting with SRU’s administration, Ever-Green Energy highlighted this potential for SRU to push towards carbon neutrality. With Behre being close to the end of his term, he wanted to leave the final decision up to the President following in his place. In lieu of a commitment, administration agreed to conduct a more detailed follow-up study for geothermal usage on campus, with accurate cost analyses for each academic and residential building.

Scott Albert, associate vice president of facilities, environmental safety and sustainability was directed to find and hire a geothermal consultant for SRU. Actions beyond this are still being determined, and it is up to us, the students, to keep the conversation going.

When posed with the question of how to keep up the carbon neutrality mission, Kaitlin responded with, “Student voice[s are] so important, and if you want to see change happen, you need to keep reminding those in charge of it.”

With every possibility, we need to be asking the question: How will this make SRU carbon neutral?

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