Frequently Asked Questions about Carbon Neutrality

April, 2013

Environmental sustainability is one of Colby’s seven core values.  As part of Colby’s institutional commitment to reducing its environmental impact (see Green Colby for additional information) the College has committed to reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other gasses that contribute to climate change.  In April 2013 the College declared carbon neutrality.   

What did Colby do to achieve neutrality?

Carbon neutrality has required a multi-pronged approach. The College:

  • Installed co-generation turbine in 1999, producing about 10 percent of Colby’s electrical demand as a by-product of generating heat and hot water for the campus.
  • Began purchasing all of its electricity from renewable sources in 2003, replacing roughly one-third of “business as usual” emissions.   
  • New construction and major renovation projects for occupied buildings are designed to LEED standards. Colby currently has eight LEED certified projects with five others registered.    
  • Converted central heating plant fuel source from exclusively #6 oil to mostly wood-chip biomass, reducing emissions by roughly another third.         
  • Reduced emissions through increasing recycling efforts, contracting with local landfill that uses methane recapture, and completing many energy efficiency projects designed to reduce electricity consumption and improve efficiency of heat and hot water. (These projects include renovations, HVAC upgrades, lighting upgrades, composting, purchasing more fuel-efficient vehicles, and incorporating building temperature setbacks.)
  • Installed geothermal heating and cooling systems in two major construction projects.

What is the rationale for carbon offsets?

  • Reaching carbon neutrality has three key components:
  • Purchasing strategies (in Colby’s case these include electricity and heating fuel) that use renewable energy sources
  • Reducing campus-based emissions by converting where possible from non-renewable petroleum to renewable wood chip biomass energy sources, reducing waste through re-use, recycling, composting, and methane recapture
  • Offsetting emissions by purchasing “offsets” for remaining carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions that Colby cannot yet reduce or replace (primarily travel-related emissions). 

Purchasing offsets provides funding that can be used by landfill operators, energy providers, agricultural organizations, and others to invest in projects that reduce carbon emissions. Sales of offsets can provide important financial support to make these projects viable. 

Colby will spend about $50,000 this year on carbon credits. This investment is made possible in part through the savings accrued by the College when it converted from heating oil to biomass as its primary heat source. 

Why is carbon neutrality so important to Colby?

Colby has a longstanding commitment to the environment – in the curriculum, college operations, and in the institutional culture. Carbon neutrality is an extension of that commitment.

Offsetting our environmental footprint is a natural goal for a college that includes sustainability as a core value. Reaching this milestone highlights Colby’s commitment to the environment in a public way, puts Colby in a leadership position on an important public policy matter, and provides students with a real-life example of sustainable living that will accompany them long after graduation. 

Colby hopes to serve as a model for other colleges and universities that seek to reach this goal. More than 600 college and university presidents have signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment. Colby is one of only three colleges or universities that currently are carbon neutral.

What goes into calculating the institution’s carbon footprint?

We gather data from a variety of campus departments on their operations as they relate to greenhouse gas emissions.  Calculated emissions, reported in metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents (MTCO2e), include all those from sources directly owned and controlled by the College such as fuels used in operating College buildings and vehicles and maintaining campus grounds, as well as indirect emissions such as those from College travel, commuting, and waste disposal.     

Who monitors or approves carbon footprint calculations?

To measure greenhouse gas emissions, Colby uses the Cool Air-Clean Planet (CA-CP) Campus Carbon Calculator, which is recommended by the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) because it was designed specifically for college and university campuses. More than 90 percent of ACUPCC institutions use the CA-CP calculator.

Data are gathered by the Office of Institutional Research, and Colby’s Environmental Advisory Group reviews the key assumptions and calculated results each year. 

Colby also engaged a consultant in 2012-13 to conduct an independent analysis of the College’s greenhouse gas emissions. Using its carbon tracker model, Competitive Energy Services of Portland, Maine, performed separate calculations of Colby’s emissions and the results were within one percent of those generated by the CA-CP calculator. 

Where does Colby’s biomass fuel come from, and how does the College ensure it is sustainable and “green?”

The biomass fuel used at Colby consists primarily of low-grade wood waste such as treetops, tree branches, and smaller trees from thinning operations. When possible, the College sources wood from within a 50-mile radius of the campus. All suppliers certify that they provide wood that was harvested under the guidelines of either the Sustainable Forestry Initiative or the Forest Stewardship Council; from a Maine tree farm; or via a Master Logger with a certified harvest plan.

What projects is Colby helping to fund through its purchase of carbon credits?

Carbon credits purchased for the 2012-13 fiscal year were selected on the basis of a competitive marketing survey conducted in March 2013. All the projects selected this year were located in the United States. Three of the four projects are located in New England and one is located in Maine. The selected projects all use methane-recapture and conversion techniques to achieve carbon emissions reductions. These purchases reflect the current dominance of methane recapture projects in the carbon offset market (roughly 90 percent of current sales).

In the future Colby anticipates diversifying the types of projects it supports to provide funding to an array of organizations and carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions reduction strategies.

Why does Colby continue to purchase some oil for heating?

The biomass plant was sized to maximize efficiency for a physical plant of Colby’s size—roughly 1.5 million square feet of building space. Oil is required to cover a small number of peak heating days in the coldest part of winter when the biomass plant alone cannot provide sufficient heat for the entire campus. The original oil boilers also provide fuel redundancy to cover shutdowns for routine maintenance and repairs of the biomass boilers. Colby continues to explore the possibility of converting the oil-fired boilers to gas-fired boilers to further reduce our remaining carbon emissions (burning natural gas emits less carbon than oil).  

Now that Colby has achieved carbon neutrality, what is left to do with environmental sustainability?

Lots. We know we can improve efforts to reduce waste generation through conservation and recycling. We will continue to invest in energy efficiency projects to reduce the demand for the oil we consume. We will continue to try to reduce electricity and energy consumption by reducing College-related travel and encouraging conservation. The College will continue to encourage the campus community to improve Colby’s environmental footprint by purchasing local and organic food, improving water efficiency, reducing use of toxic chemicals, and many other environmental sustainability initiatives. As part of this commitment the College recently hired its first Sustainability Coordinator to help coordinate and implement these diverse initiatives.