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Options for Achieving a Carbon Neutral
Campus: Analysis of Solutions

Produced by: Senior Leaders Climate Action Group (SLCAG)
Published: September 2016

Download: Report PDF

About this Report

Report Summary: Technical and financial analysis of viable options for carbon neutral power and heat for Cornell Ithaca campus, and subsequent recommendations from senior leadership.  This report recommended pursuing Earth Source Heat and renewable energy development as the University's primary strategy for carbon neutral heat and power, in addition to continuing support for campus engagement, climate literacy, and other behavior change programs. 

The Options Report was the first major initiative on campus to create, implement, and use the Sustainability Framework or 'quadruple bottom line' for decision making.

Report Background: Cornell University released Options for Achieving a Carbon Neutral Campus by 2035 - Analysis of Solutions in September 2016 to better inform decision-making on reaching the campus goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2035. The report focuses on solutions to reducing energy demands and providing low carbon energy supply.

Report Outcome:   Recommendations provided in the Options Report were presented to the Provost in Fall 2016.  The report reaffirmed the University's decision to pursue Earth Source Heat and renewable energy development as the primary heating and power solution for carbon neutrality, and also reaffirmed the importance of behavior change, climate literacy, and campus engagement programs. 


Technical Appendices

The Options Report is, in essence, a summary and set of recommendations based on the findings of a detailed financial and technical scope analysis report: the Climate Neutral Campus Energy Alternatives Report (CNCEAR).  The CNCEAR report provides detailed technical background on assumptions and models as referenced for decision-making in the Options report.  Further supplemental guidance on calculations, decision-making, and faculty-supported research which informed the Options Report and CNCEAR report are provided in other Appendices.


Executive Summary

Taken from the Options Report, September 2016

In March 2016, Provost Michael Kotlikoff charged the Senior Leaders Climate Action Group (SLCAG) to analyze viable energy alternatives for the Ithaca campus to achieve carbon neutrality by 2035. Reducing energy demand while adapting to renewable energy sources will require innovative technological solutions, a significant increase in capital investment in renewable energy sources, and broad support and engagement from all members of the campus community.

Sustainability is a signature area of excellence at Cornell University. Its faculty, students, staff and alumni have a wealth of knowledge, and tapping into their expertise will be critical to meeting these ambitious campus goals. The choices Cornell makes today to power a carbon-neutral campus tomorrow will involve real costs. These investments would insulate Cornell from unknown future volatility in fossil fuel markets and associated carbon fees. Nevertheless, they must be carefully considered in the context of the University’s need to advance its full academic mission, including the ability to offer the best and most cost-effective education for its students, and the creation of new knowledge that advances society and serves the citizens of New York state. It is a delicate balance. 

In addition to assessing the single bottom line of proposed solutions, this report uses social costs as a measure of the true impact of University carbon use in Ithaca and beyond. It also introduces a new greenhouse gas assessment to account for the impact of methane leakage from natural gas purchased by Cornell. On the time scale for achieving our carbon neutrality goal, reducing the impact of leaked methane has the highest impact on reducing climate change.

It is important to note that this report is not a definitive plan of action; rather, it is a set of recommendations for discussion, and will require input from the campus and the surrounding community.

Proposed solutions include:

  • Invest immediately in reducing energy demand through support for and advancement of our energy conservation programs;

  • Make preliminary investments in transitioning to a low-carbon campus energy supply;

  • Set goals and explore options to secure external funding;

  • Pursue energy solutions in partnership with local and regional entities;

  • Adopt rigorous building energy standards and project approval processes during retrofits, deferred maintenance projects, and new construction to create only “high-performance buildings” on campus;

  • Prioritize development of infrastructure to support a campus fleet of clean-fuel vehicles and replace existing fleet accordingly;

  • Evaluate Earth Source Heat and Ground Source Heat pumps as heating solutions;

  • Strive for 100 percent of the campus electric supply to come from renewable sources;

  • Seek campus-wide behavioral change through programs such as Think Big, Live Green and other campus engagement programs; and

  • Ensure all students graduate with a basic understanding of climate literacy.

We believe the campus, local community and region are partners in helping to reduce our carbon footprint, and we must consider and pursue solutions that ensure a thriving, resilient and sustainable future for Ithaca, New York state, and, where possible, the world.

-Senior Leaders Climate Action Group, Fall 2016