American University has achieved carbon neutrality, reaching its goal of having a net zero carbon footprint two years early, University President Sylvia Burwell announced today.
“We hope that our work will become a model for sustainability and show how one community can make a real impact,” Burwell said in a video announcement.
In a press release, AU said it was the “first carbon neutral university in the nation” as well as the first urban campus and research university to earn the distinction. Several other colleges, most recently Bowdoin College in Maine, have previously announced that they have become carbon neutral.
The University publicly committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2020 eight years ago and reached its goal thanks to the rapid development of technology within the environmental field, said Megan Litke, the director of sustainability programs at AU.
The largest of these developments has been the installation of a solar panel farm in North Carolina, which the University partnered with George Washington University and George Washington University Hospital to complete.
“We were able to install the solar panels in North Carolina, which is within our electricity grid, so we’ve been able to work with developers to develop more renewables right in our region,” Litke said in an interview.
Half of AU’s electricity comes from the North Carolina farm, and the remaining 50 percent comes from renewable energy credits, or RECs. RECs represent the “property rights to the environmental, social and other non-power attributes of renewable electricity generation,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Since AU cannot put up enough solar panels to produce 100 percent of its electricity, the University purchases the credits, Litke said.
“Any time you install a renewable source of energy, you also generate a renewable energy credit,” Litke said. “You can either retain it or sell it. The reason you would sell it is financially, to help pay for it. The reason you would buy them is if you don’t have space for all of your own solar panels, which we don’t.”
AU’s sustainability efforts will not end with carbon neutrality, Litke said. The University plans to rewrite its sustainability plan this fall in an effort to include resiliency. Among these plans are a campus-wide conversion of the University’s hot water and heating systems, which is already in motion. This will reduce AU’s reliance on fossil fuels, according to a university press release.
“[We are] not just looking at reducing our footprint but also being ready to work with our community at AU and within Washington, D.C. and the region,” Litke said.
Faith Lewis, an intern for the sustainability office, also expressed her hopefulness for the future of sustainability at AU.
“By taking this step, committing toward carbon neutrality and achieving that goal is something that shows students that we’re committed,” Lewis said in a university video. “And it shows what our priorities are.”
A life-long environmental advocate, Litke credited campus-wide sustainability efforts, such as student involvement in zero waste events and faculty engagement with environmental topics, as the key to achieving carbon neutrality.
“Something that makes this achievement at AU really special is that the whole community plays a role in it,” Litke said. “It’s about the day to day actions that people on campus are taking.”