A “Whole-of-Higher-Ed” Approach to Energy Solutions - Smart Energy Decisions

Energy Efficiency, Sourcing Renewables  -  July 13, 2022 - By Tim Carter and Bridget Flynn, Second Nature

A “Whole-of-Higher-Ed” Approach to Energy Solutions

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear someone talking about college? “All-nighters to study for finals”, “Figuring out how to live away from home for the first time”, “Lifelong friendships forged by the blissful ignorance of youth”, “That one professor who sparked something in me and shaped my current career path”,  or “The Belushi poster everyone had on their wall”.

Responses will vary, but for those of us who had the privilege of attending college, we likely have a wide range of formative memories from that time in our lives.

More relevant to those of you reading this column, what is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear someone talking about “colleges and energy solutions”? “Large institutional consumers of energy”, “Significant amounts of 24/7 demand”, “High-reliability needs for infrastructure”, “Dependable and influential driver of energy procurement at the local level”, and “An important business vertical for our company”.

All of these aspects of higher education and energy solutions are in play. And, in fact, energy solutions have been deployed in higher education for decades. Institutions have implemented a range of programs - from individual behavior changes like teaching students to wash clothes in cold water to large operational changes. For example, in 2012, Ball State University completed installation of one of the largest ground-source geothermal systems in the country. In 2014, George Washington University, George Washington University Hospital, and American University completed a 52MW utility-scale solar project, at the time one of the largest power purchase agreements east of the Mississippi River.

Like many other sectors, these energy projects are driven in part by commitments to action from senior leadership. Since 2006, Second Nature has managed a program called the Presidents’ Climate Leadership Commitments, where presidents and chancellors have committed their institutions to set aggressive climate action goals. This shared Commitment has resulted in the Climate Leadership Network within higher education, which includes hundreds of campuses across the United States and across institution types - from large research-intensive universities, to community and technical colleges, to private, liberal arts colleges. The Commitment has provided an important strategic underpinning for these energy solution successes over the past 15 years with 47% fewer carbon emissions and 27% less energy use at Climate Leadership Network institutions when compared with their non-signatory counterparts.

So while there clearly has been progress in higher education to help deploy climate and clean energy solutions, the key question facing us now is, “Is the sector doing enough?” Or rather “How could the sector do more?” 

We believe one way to answer this is to expand our concept of who within higher education can be deployed to contribute to climate solutions. Traditionally solutions have been focused on the operational departments within the institution such as through physical plant staff, sustainability managers, energy managers, and financial planners. Many of you may work with these folks, or you may be in one of these positions yourself. While necessary, we believe that the mobilization of an institution’s operational assets alone is not maximizing the potential for colleges and universities to drive change.

In particular, integration of academic assets into the sector’s climate action solutions deployment can unlock opportunities for innovation, scale, mission alignment, and funding that can’t happen when the work is narrowly delegated to an operational office. Tapping into the vast knowledge base of the world’s leading faculty (some of whom are researching the solutions themselves!) to help inform cutting-edge practice, integrating students using “learning-by-doing” models of curriculum, and leveraging alumni interest in seeing their alma maters taking socially responsible action, is a unique feature of the sector that has huge potential for helping accelerate action.

And leveraging the academic and educational resources would expand campus climate solution activity beyond self-serving approaches to meet higher education’s own needs. This allows for new cross-sector partnerships to emerge, where college and university assets can complement those of local governments or healthcare providers, or businesses that share similar commitments to climate action. Through those collaborations, the sector can realize the service-oriented mission to educate through acting, practice what it teaches, and make maximal efforts to solve the grand challenges of our time.

We’re beginning to see more and more examples of this “whole-of-higher-education” approach finding traction within our Climate Leadership Network and among higher education institutions across the US. This has included such examples as town and gown energy purchasing collaboration like at Oberlin City and College; applied research that advances real efforts on campus and in the community, like Furman University’s Shi Institute’s Center for Applied Sustainability Research; green revolving loan funds like Tufts’ where campus operators, students, and financial planners work together to tackle campus projects to reduce energy expenditures and increase efficiency; college internships that assist local community governments and organizations write climate action and/or resilience plans and conduct greenhouse gas inventories, such as those at Dickinson College and Indiana University. Collaborative partnerships to break down these silos can lead to better student outcomes, financial outcomes, and institutional and environmental outcomes.

Over 400 of the campuses in Second Nature’s Climate Leadership Network have committed to carbon neutrality at the most senior level of the institution. With a whole-of-higher-ed approach, we can simultaneously take institutional and sector leadership on climate action, reduce institutional emissions and risk exposure, develop students intellectually, professionally, and personally, and mobilize research to answer the most pressing questions needed to solve our grand challenges. The urgency to implement equitable climate solutions necessitates changes at all of these levels - from the individuals to institutions, from local to global - beginning with a reconception of what the higher education sector is and can be.

Second Nature will present a Preconference Workshop on "Climate Leadership in Higher Education" as part of the specialized climate action content for energy and sustainability executives in Higher Education at the Smart Energy Decisions Net Zero Forum, September 11-13, 2022. Click here for details on how to register for the event.


Tim Carter is the president of Second Nature, a US-based non-profit with a mission to accelerate climate action in, and through, higher education. As president, Dr. Carter provides strategic leadership for the organization, including a focus on decarbonization activity and climate leadership of the 400+ schools in Second Nature’s Climate Leadership Network and University Climate Change Coalition. Prior to Second Nature, Dr. Carter was the founding director of Butler University’s Center for Urban Ecology (CUE) where he built the CUE from a fledgling unit with two interns and a program manager to a thriving academic center with over $3M in externally funded initiatives. He has authored over 20 peer-reviewed publications in the fields of sustainability, ecology, and climate change. Dr. Carter received his Ph.D. in Ecology with distinction from the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia (UGA) and completed his B.S. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. 

Bridget Flynn is a Climate Programs Manager with Second Nature. In this relationship-centered role, Bridget works with campuses to overcome barriers, share solutions, and align Second Nature programming to best serve climate action progress. Bridget also works with corporate and NGO partners to bring needed solutions to member campuses. Flynn has over a decade of experience in higher education sustainability. Prior to joining Second Nature, Bridget was the Sustainability Manager at Oberlin College. Previous to Oberlin College, she worked at an international wind energy company, facilitated vegan community organizing, and worked at the Indiana University Office of Sustainability. Bridget served the City of Oberlin as a commissioner, Climate Action Planner, and Complete Streets advisor. Bridget serves on the AASHE Advisory Council on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and speaks nationally on sustainability topics. Bridget is also a National Fellow in the Environmental Leadership Program. Bridget holds a Master’s of Science in Positive Organization Development and Change from Case Western Reserve University and a Bachelor of Arts from Indiana University with majors in Religious Studies and Environmental Ethics through the Individualized Major Program and a minor in Sociology.  


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