Oberlin College is leading the way when it comes to environmental sustainability in higher education. Its commitment to the campus, students, and the surrounding community demonstrates how a college can embrace a leadership position on an influential global issue. With more innovation on the horizon supported by a progressive strategic plan, Oberlin is just getting started and will continue striving to make a significant impact—both on its campus and in the surrounding community—for years to come.
Colleges and universities play a significant role in the sustainable development of our communities and our society. Because of this, higher education leaders have recently focused more effort on reducing their environmental impacts over the past two decades17. However, many schools still struggle to keep sustainability as a top priority among competing initiatives and shrinking budgets. With natural resources becoming more strained and additional financing scarce, the challenges faced by colleges and universities are more daunting and difficult than ever before.
Embracing Role as a Sustainability Leader
Despite these difficult times, there are leaders in education that are embracing this challenge and driving real change among their campuses and within their communities. Oberlin College, a liberal arts school in Ohio, is an example of how institutions can welcome the role of becoming a global thought and action leader in environmental sustainability.
According to Meghan Riesterer, Assistant Vice President for Campus Energy and Sustainability at Oberlin, it all starts with a strong vision, stating “at Oberlin College we strive to think beyond our physical and organizational boundaries to create energy systems, communities and lives that are sustainable and resilient.”
This vision drives the mission of Oberlin as well, which Riesterer said is, “to lead by example and motivate others across the globe, especially students, to realize how holistic systems thinking, collaboration and decision-making affect our forward progress.”
While having a shared vision and central mission is critical, it also takes a substantial amount of time and resources to solve issues central to environmental sustainability. For many years, Oberlin has taken tangible actions toward meeting its commitment to sustainability by leveraging a culture of innovation to support and drive innovative sustainability initiatives such as the development of an aggressive climate action plan, implementation of green building practices and creation of community partnerships.
Building a Culture of Innovation
In 2006, Oberlin became one of the nation’s first higher education institutions to accept the carbon neutrality challenge by signing Second Nature’s Carbon Commitment (formerly ACUPCC), which required a 100% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2025. To accomplish this goal, the college created an aggressive Carbon Neutral Master Plan that is projected to reduce the college’s annual water consumption by 7.5 million gallons and reduce current scope 1 and 2 carbon emissions by 73%, with a 92% reduction from the 2007 baseline (figure below).
Oberlin also took the commitment a step further by launching the campus-wide From Coal to Carbon Neutrality (FC2CN) campaign to highlight the 2025 vision and communicate progress on various projects such as the conversion to a coal-free central heating plant and the development of a 2.27 MW solar array. This campaign also inspired a student-led initiative to track progress in real-time and give visibility into the long-term strategies for achieving the goal.
Then, in 2015 Oberlin again reinforced its leadership position by signing the Resilience Commitment, focusing on climate adaptation and resilience planning. Together, the focus on carbon neutrality and climate resilience constitute a new, integrated Climate Commitment, which enhances the ability to transcend traditional campus silos of academics, operations, student life, community
engagement, and administration for holistic social impact.
Setting the Standard for Green Building
One way Oberlin strives to meet its sustainability commitments is by implementing green building practices and policies into all of its facilities. This effort ensures all new construction and renovations are built in accordance with the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED silver standard or above. This effort continually reduces the use of campus resources and ensures that all buildings are designed with energy-efficiency in mind.
What is unique, however, is that Oberlin isn’t just following green building standards, but actually creating them. One example dates back to 2000, when the state-of-the-art, Adam Joseph Lewis Center (AJLC) facility was built on campus. This innovative building helped drive many of the LEED standards that are commonly used today and was declared by the New York Times as “the most remarkable” of a new generation of environmentally responsible buildings.
This success has also led to a culture of sustainable growth and innovation that expands green building practices beyond just single campus buildings to a whole city block, such as with the new 13- acre Green Arts District, which will serve as a driver for community economic revitalization and include the restoration of three college- owned properties; the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Hall Auditorium, and the innovative Hotel at Oberlin.
Uniquely built, the Hotel at Oberlin features geothermal walls, radiant heating and cooling, sustainable landscaping, and innovative programming, putting it at the forefront of modern green building. It is also on track to become one of five hotels in the country to receive LEED Platinum certification. In addition to its innovative technology, this facility is also positioning itself as a prime location for forward-thinking, high-impact sustainability events, such as the 2016 national conference After Fossil Fuels: the Next Economy. This event hosted many of the world’s prominent philanthropists, business leaders, and educators to collaborate on urgent changes needed for a successful transition to a sustainable economy driven by safe, renewable energy. Through efforts such as this, Oberlin College is setting a new benchmark for community-scale green development across the country.
A Collaborative Effort
While the progress made on campus is remarkable, another piece that takes Oberlin’s efforts to the next level is its commitment to the surrounding community. Through the recent participation in The Oberlin Project—a joint effort with the City of Oberlin to create a sustainable base for growth and development—the school has quickly established itself as a sustainable leader in the community.
Through this initiative, the college has successfully worked with the local municipal utility, Oberlin Municipal Light and Power System (OMLPS), to incorporate a large renewable percentage in the local electric grid portfolio. The college also contributes to the City’s Sustainable Reserve Fund through a hydropower purchase arrangement with OMLPS, which is open to all residents and businesses in Oberlin and provides funding for municipal electric services, programs and/or projects demonstrating energy efficiency, energy conservation, green-house gas emission reductions and/or the development of renewable generation projects.
To support the City of Oberlin’s environmental efforts further, the college also participates in various college-community financing programs such as the college’s green edge fund and the community carbon management fund—both of which are voluntarily funded by students to invest in high-impact, energy-related projects within the community.
Student Role in Sustainability
This empowerment to drive change among the community and students is core to the mission at Oberlin. “Our students remain the key to ensuring we are staying ahead of the curve in sustainability initiatives on campus and beyond,” said Riesterer, who refers to student insights and perspectives as the most valuable part of Oberlin’s program. “Student ideas and desires have spurred many initiatives and created a culture where sustainability is embedded throughout Oberlin College,” shares Riesterer.
One example of this is a student intern that is shared between the Office of Environmental Sustainability and the Financial Planning Office. This student, known as the “Project Metrics Intern” has a very specific and meaningful role to help the institution research and recommend useful metrics relevant to sustainable decisions made by leadership in a manner that respects the financial responsibilities of the institution.
“If students are heard and empowered to create a more sustainable, resilient campus community, then the time, attention, and investment to help the students focus on ways to make forward progress will prove to be the best investment we as higher institutions will ever make,” said Riesterer.
The beauty of the approach is the students, who are on campus for about 4 years, get to live on a campus they have designed and then take the lessons learned and sustainable habits formed into the “real world” where they spend the rest of their life creating a more sustainable world for all—not just Oberlin College.
Communicating the Impact
When it comes to evaluating the impact of these initiatives, tracking performance is extremely challenging, but critical to ensure the campus is moving in the right direction. Oberlin is constantly focused on improving efficiency and has implemented several energy conservation measures (ECMs) to monitor progress and refine its strategy.
The college also developed The Oberlin Environmental Dashboard, a community-level conservation tool that helps raise awareness and serves as a building-monitoring platform for facility operators. This dashboard is what Riesterer refers to as an “energy behavior change project” that gets members of both the campus and the community involved in meeting sustainability goals. Oberlin’s conservation tools have also sparked new goals to improve waste and water reduction efforts.
Despite the progress made thus far, Oberlin isn’t done yet. The college has more plans on the horizon including engaging in a GHG scope 3 study for travel and waste on campus, designing a process to capture waste heat at the Lorain County Landfill electric generation station to heat and cool campus buildings (LFG CHP), and transitioning the campus to a low-medium hot water system. Throughout each effort, Oberlin is planning a multi-faceted education, engagement, and outreach campaign on campus and beyond into the large community.
From the development of an aggressive climate action plan supported by the implementation of campus energy projects to increased visibility toward progress, community involvement and student empowerment, Oberlin’s strategy serves as a shining example of how schools can plan for and achieve environmental excellence in higher education and drive significant impact on substantial global issues.
Click here to learn more about Oberlin’s Commitment to Sustainability.
Source17: 2016 State of Sustainability, Sightlines