The University of Lynchburg this week became the first college or university in the commonwealth to achieve carbon neutrality. It’s a major step in a series of efforts the University has made in recent years to reduce its carbon footprint and increase its commitment to environmental sustainability.
“Climate change is the most significant environmental challenge of our time, and one practical way to make a difference is for institutions like ours to not only reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, but also support initiatives that reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to offset our own emissions,” President Dr. Alison Morrison-Shetlar said.
For several years now, the University of Lynchburg has been a leader among higher education institutions, thanks in large part to efforts made by Vice President for Business and Finance Steve Bright, who committed in 2014 to purchasing green energy from Collegiate Clean Energy. CCE is a Virginia-based company that uses recycled diesel engines to convert harmful methane emissions from landfills into 100% renewable energy.
In 2009-10, the University invested $4.8 million into 21 conservation projects on its main campus. Water consumption was reduced by 45%, and electricity usage by 35%. The massive reduction in water usage triggered concern in the city’s utilities department, which thought something might be wrong with the water meter, Bright recalled.
But nothing was wrong with it, of course. The savings in water came from the installation of low-flow toilets, showerheads, and faucets, as well as “smart” irrigation systems.
“These improvements provided a lower energy usage profile as a baseline for future progress,” he said.
The University also created a green revolving fund that is perpetual in nature and funds sustainability projects across campus, saving electricity and water.
In 2015, Lynchburg, along with several other Virginia institutions, entered into an agreement to begin producing solar energy. The federally funded SunShot grant allowed feasibility studies on the campuses, with the intention to develop solar power over time. Lynchburg continues to pursue on-site solar and is close to an agreement with its renewable energy provider, Bright said.
In addition, the University participates in a practice called “load shedding” with a regional energy company, reducing its energy usage when the grid is stressed in order to help prevent higher-polluting energy generation options to be brought online to meet the immediate need.
Right on campus, Boyce Hamlet, Curtis Layne, and others in the physical plant have promoted energy efficiency and conservation. In dining services, Michial Neal and Shaun Dearden implemented earth-friendly practices that earned the cafeteria a Certified Green Restaurant designation in 2019.
Recently, Morrison-Shetlar signed the 2021 Presidents’ Climate Commitment, a renewal of the 2007 agreement signed by former President Ken Garren. The University also joined the Climate Leadership Network.
“Taking this final step to become carbon-neutral will solidify our leadership role so that we can continue to serve as an example of strategies for campuses like ours,” said Dr. Laura Henry-Stone, associate professor of environmental science and sustainability at Lynchburg. “It will also demonstrate to our students how to address global environmental challenges such as climate change.
“This generation of students will be at the forefront of pursuing solutions to these types of challenges, and it is our responsibility in higher education to give them the tools they will need to succeed.”
However, achieving complete carbon neutrality is tricky — in fact, it’s “almost impossible,” she added, for an individual or institution to eliminate carbon emissions. And even if it were possible, it’s not sufficient.
“Our global climate is at the point where it won’t be enough to just stop putting carbon into the atmosphere,” Henry-Stone said. “We need to pursue ways to actually remove carbon, as well, through processes that sequester carbon, such as by planting and maintaining appropriate trees and crops.”
To become carbon-neutral, institutions like the University of Lynchburg — and there are just a few nationwide — purchase so-called “carbon offsets” to make up for the emissions that can’t be stopped, such as students and staff driving to campus. Those offsets, Henry-Stone explained, will support carbon sequestration projects.
And that’s another strategy: offsetting emissions proactively through campus management projects. A great candidate for this is Claytor Nature Center, which includes more than 400 acres of forest.
Henry-Stone and her colleagues in environmental science plan to analyze the forest in future carbon inventories for its ability to store carbon. College Lake’s future transformation into a forested wetlands ecosystem offers more opportunities to promote carbon sequestration.
Both locations have been vital sites of research for majors in environmental science (BS) and sustainability studies (BA) alike. The latter is a new major that emerged out of environmental studies. Along with department chair Dr. Brooke Haiar and colleague Dr. Dave Perault, Henry-Stone is currently in the process of revamping the curriculum to better serve students.
As director of sustainability, she also has support this year from Lindsey Van Zile, a new graduate assistant for campus sustainability and part-time sustainability coordinator for the University.
Together, the duo is tackling a thorough campus sustainability assessment using a tool called STARS. It’s hosted by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, an international organization.
“Our STARS assessment will help us better understand what we are already doing well on campus and identify areas where we can improve,” Henry-Stone said. “For instance, we already know we are doing well regarding our carbon footprint and in areas such as dining services.
“On the other hand, a significant component of the assessment involves the extent to which sustainability is represented throughout our curriculum and faculty research.”
A lot of work has gone into promoting sustainability at Lynchburg over the years, and Henry-Stone is grateful to the faculty who have helped her lay the groundwork. As so often at Lynchburg, it’s a team effort that transcends academic disciplines.
There’s Professor of Mathematics Dr. Kevin Peterson, who served as sustainability coordinator from 2011 to 2019, when Henry-Stone took over. Dr. Tom Shahady, professor of environmental science and director of the Center for Water Quality, worked with Peterson for many years on campus sustainability projects.
There’s Dr. Greg Eaton, director of the Claytor Nature Center and fervent sustainability advocate. He’s also taught in the environmental science and sustainability department.
There’s the late Dr. Nancy Cowden, associate professor of biology, who helped with the University’s first greenhouse gas inventory in 2007-08 and designed a Westover Honors College science course focused on sustainability, among various other initiatives.
And there’s English professor Dr. Elizabeth Sharrett, who began serving as the advisor for the Lynchburg Environmental Sustainability Society, a student organization, when Henry-Stone stepped down in 2019.
Dr. Michael Craig, who was on the economics faculty until 2020 and taught campus sustainability topics in his environmental economics course, is a crucial partner in the University’s carbon-neutral achievement. He conducted Lynchburg’s 2018-19 and 2019-20 greenhouse gas inventories in consultation with representatives from SIMAP and Second Nature.
“When we completed the 2018-19 greenhouse gas inventory, we realized that the University was already in a great position to achieve carbon neutrality thanks to the efforts made over the past decade,” Craig said. “So when we were beginning the 2019-20 inventory, the goal was to identify our net carbon footprint so we could achieve carbon neutrality by purchasing offsets from our renewable energy provider. It’s exciting to have been a part of this process and see everything come to fruition.”
Carbon neutrality is a major milestone in Lynchburg’s multilayered sustainability journey, but much of the work is only just beginning.
“There is still room for progress,” Craig said. “One of the next big steps the University can take is to calculate the carbon sequestration capacity of Claytor Nature Center and the soon-to-be Black Water Creek Wetlands. Ideally, these two locations will generate enough offsets so that the University does not have to purchase offsets in the market, which will help decrease the cost of maintaining carbon neutrality.
“And if the University continues to reduce emissions elsewhere, they would even be able to sell excess, campus-generated offsets to continue funding other sustainability initiatives. This would serve as a powerful demonstration of the financial benefits of sustainability and conservation and hopefully drive other market-based solutions.”
Learn more about sustainability at Lynchburg here.