Elmhurst College: Measuring Elmhurst’s Carbon Footprint

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Measuring Elmhurst’s Carbon Footprint

Elmhurst has made strides in containing its carbon footprint, and even outperforms institutions of similar size in the region, according to the College’s first inventory of its greenhouse gas emissions.  

Still, the environmental-impact review, commissioned with support from the school’s Sustainability Committee, suggests there’s room for improvement. The principal value of the statistical carbon-emissions snapshot will be to serve as a benchmark to measure future progress, Affiliated Engineers consultant Jeannette LeBoyer told an Illinois Hall audience during a presentation of the report on April 19.  

The study is part of a larger process, “a first step in moving toward a more neutral footprint,”  LeBoyer said in an interview. She added that “Elmhurst is doing very well” in restricting its greenhouse-gas impact.

In recent years, growing concerns about global warming have prompted educational institutions to examine their carbon emissions. Affiliated Engineers, the Madison, Wisconsin, firm that conducted  Elmhurst’s review, has performed similar surveys for colleges and universities nationwide.

The review was designed to identify direct and indirect sources of Elmhurst’s greenhouse gas emissions, and also to determine how the school’s performance stacks up compared with other colleges.  

Direct sources, LeBoyer said, include emissions under the school’s control, such as natural gas burned for heating, and fuel consumed by the school’s fleet of vehicles.  In addition, the review calculated the CO2 emissions by utilities that generate the electricity used on Elmhurst’s campus.  Those offsite emissions represent a whopping 50 percent of the school’s overall CO2 output, the survey found.

The review also quantified a range of other emissions for which the school is responsible, such as the smog contribution from the cars of the students, instructors and staffers who commute to Elmhurst. It even included the greenhouse-gas impact of the jet aircraft that carry students to and from study abroad programs.  

When all the numbers were crunched, the survey concluded that Elmhurst is responsible each year for the equivalent of 13,363 metric tons of carbon dioxide. That’s about equal to the amount created by cars burning 1,363,600 gallons of gas, or the CO2 impact of providing electricity to 1,500 U.S. households.  

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It’s a hefty number, but it could be worse, LeBoyer told the audience.  In fact, in comparison with 10 smaller colleges in the region, Elmhurst more than holds its own.    

By one of two key measures—CO2 equivalent emissions per full-time student—the College ranked at the top, with a modest 4.1 tons-per-student ratio that was lower than any other school in the peer group, and less than half the output of several of its peers.  

By the second yardstick, which calculated emissions per 1,000 square feet of building space—Elmhurst landed in the top half, with a 14.6 tons rating that made it fifth-lowest emitter out of eleven.

The College’s carbon footprint has no doubt been moderated by Elmhurst’s longstanding sustainability initiative, which in recent years has included installation of energy-efficient bulbs and motion-activated light switches campus-wide, replacing inefficient boilers and refrigeration-equipment, adding energy-saving appliances and launching a bicycle program to reduce the number of cars on campus, according to Bruce Mather, Elmhurst’s executive director of facilities management. The school’s newest residence hall, West Hall, was designed to be environment-friendly, he noted, with features such as rooftop solar-energy panels and energy-saving lighting.

The survey didn’t spell out formal recommendations. Given the financial constraints and competing claims for limited funds that educational institutions routinely face, and the site-specific decisions involved, the consultant said, the survey is best seen as a way to help administrators set priorities.   

There’s “no silver bullet” that enables institutions to easily reduce their environmental impact, LeBoyer said.  Instead, many schools focus on an “abatement hierarchy,” that focuses on ways to avoid future emissions, reduce CO2 output, and offset unavoidable carbon emissions—by planting carbon-absorbing trees, for example.

In a question-and-answer session after the presentation, Mather said that Elmhurst plans to check its progress through future surveys, with the next one likely in 2012.  

The next survey, he said, will demonstrate the CO2-reducing benefits of a $1 million boiler upgrade, which reduced Elmhurst’s natural-gas consumption during the winter. That matters, as natural gas accounted for 25 percent of the school’s overall carbon releases.

Big-ticket investments in central-plant upgrades can play a major role in reducing a college’s carbon footprint, LeBoyer noted.  But smaller, incremental efficiency measures can be surprisingly effective as well, she said, “and they’re much cheaper.”  

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