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Greenhouse gases: Much accomplished, much to do

By Dave Jones on March 3, 2015 in University

Take a bow if you got greener on the job last year — left your car at home, sorted your trash, turned off unneeded equipment, reported water leaks and took other measures to save resources.

Your efforts contributed to UC Davis’ latest strides in sustainability. A report submitted to the Board of Regents in January cites a number of UC Davis achievements in moving the campus — and the entire UC system — toward a more planet-friendly future.

Then, after taking your bow, get ready to roll up your sleeves again. Bigger challenges lie ahead — and UC Davis environmental stewards say that meeting them will require collaboration across the UC system, not to mention the collective efforts of faculty, staff and students.

The target, set by UC President Janet Napolitano in November 2013, is this: net-zero greenhouse gas emissions from campus activities, buildings and vehicles by 2025.

Read more about how UC is investing in sustainability.

According to the UC 2014 Report on Sustainable Practices, UC Davis’ greenhouse gas emissions dropped to the same level as 14 years ago, matching the average of the 10-campus system. 

3-pronged approach to net-zero emissions

To get to net zero, UC Davis needs to reduce those emissions by 210,000 metric tons a year, and find ways to not add more as the campus continues to grow. “We’ve got a mere 10 years to do that,” said Camille Kirk, assistant director of Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability.

Getting there, Kirk said, will require a three-pronged approach:

  • Reducing energy use
  • “Greening up” the campus power supply, replacing fossil fuels with solar power, biogas and other clean sources of energy
  • Offsetting the remaining emissions — investing through the state cap-and-trade program and other mechanisms in projects that reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, like reforestation, capturing methane produced by landfills or rebuilding carbon-storing peat lands.

“It’s a big, daunting, complex task,” said Elaine Swiedler, an undergraduate student who serves on the UC-wide Global Climate Leadership Council created by Napolitano last June. (Michael Siminovitch, professor of design and director of the California Lighting Technology Center, also sits on the council.)

UC stood out by establishing the goal of carbon neutrality by 2025, said Swiedler, a fourth-year student double majoring in environmental policy, analysis and planning, and economics.

She said she was optimistic that, with the combined brain- and will power of the faculty, students and staff, UC can meet the challenge. “The size and power of the UC system means that, if we’re all on board and working on a common problem, some impressive things can happen.”

West Village: 'Living laboratory'

UC Davis is already serving as a “living laboratory” for sustainability research and education, the 2014 sustainability report says, including its use of solar energy at its West Village planned net-zero energy neighborhood.

The report describes UC Davis as a “test bed for integrated renewable energy, energy storage and electric vehicle systems” as well as water conservation and drought-response leadership.

“Our emissions are dropping even though we have added buildings, added people,” Kirk said. “As we build new buildings, we try to create energy-efficient buildings. As we maintain existing buildings, we try to tune them up.”

In 2014, five UC Davis buildings received Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design green-building certification — one platinum, two gold and two silver—bringing the campus’s total of LEED-certified buildings to 16. See all of our green-building ratings.

UC Davis also continued its participation in now 10-year-old  partnership with California’s investor-owned utilities that defrays the costs of energy-efficiency projects in existing facilities.

The program has allowed UC to avoid roughly $28 million in annual energy costs, or about $140 million cumulatively, according to the UC sustainability report. Through the partnership, UC received $7.1 million in incentives during 2014, helping to defray the costs of 80 energy efficiency projects on UC campuses.

Energy bill drops $10.3 million

As of 2014, the Davis campus had amassed cumulative annual savings of 34.7 million kilowatt-hours of electricity and 2.3 million therms of natural gas, and received more than $10.3 million in incentives. Additional annual savings of 60.7 million kilowatt-hours and 4.9 million therms are anticipated for projects proposed through 2025.

In three other environmental categories, the report found, the Davis campus met or surpassed its goals for two and was close to its target on the third: 

  • Potable water consumption per capita declined about 33 percent from a 1996-99 baseline, putting UC Davis ahead of its goal of reducing potable water use by 20 percent in 2020. The campus is working to reduce water use an additional 20 percent from 2013 consumption.
  • Sustainably grown food comprised 29 percent of food bought for the dining commons, beating its 2020 goal of 20 percent seven years early.
  • Solid waste diverted from landfills totaled 65 percent, with the total higher still at 71 percent when construction material recycling was counted. While those totals marked a slight decrease from the previous year, per capita landfill waste remained the same as 2012-13 and lower than 2011-12.

The UC Davis Health System bought 20 percent of its food from sustainable sources, reduced its water consumption from 190 million gallons to 110 million gallons, and diverted 60 percent of its waste from the landfill (29 percent when construction debris was excluded).

Solar projects

Kirk said UC Davis will make even greater strides over the next two years as new solar-energy projects come online. UC Davis anticipates getting nearly a quarter of its electricity from solar power projects being built in Fresno County under a UC partnership with Frontier Renewables. In addition, a solar power plant being built by UC Davis and SunPower Corp. on 62 acres south of Interstate 80 is expected to meet an additional 14 percent of UC Davis’ electricity needs.

“These projects are the result of nimble thinking on the part of our utilities and design and construction management offices, working together with our sustainability office and others across campus to creatively and analytically tackle our long-term energy sourcing,” she said.

Today, UC Davis receives electricity from the Western Area Power Administration, which generates hydroelectric power and also delivers power from the California electrical grid. 

Other hurdles to tackle will be finding biogas sources to replace the natural gas that fires the boilers in the central heating/cooling system, runs a co-generation plan at the medical center and fuels Unitrans buses. Natural gas burns cleaner, of course, that regular gas, but still comes from fossil sources.

In addition, Kirk said, small steps will help reduce power consumption — steps such as turning off unneeded lights, shutting down computers at night, replacing old lab freezers.

“It’s about being mindful about how we use the resources on campus,” she said. “It seems so easy to think you’re not the ones paying the electricity bill, but actually you are — as a taxpayer and a member of the UC.”

Saving resources now will put the campus in a better position in the future, Kirk said. “Being good stewards of our slice of the planet is really the UC Davis way — smart, innovative, effective and ethical.”

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Media contact(s)

Dave Jones, Dateline, 530-752-6556,