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How Local College Leaders & Student Activists Are Working Towards 100% Renewable Energy
Energy

How Local College Leaders & Student Activists Are Working Towards 100% Renewable Energy

PennEnvironment brought together collegiate experts and organizers to share how their institutions are switching to renewable energy sources. Here’s what students can do to push for greener operations at their universities.

At PennEnvironment’s 100% Renewable Campuses Virtual Panel on August 12th, students and college leaders detailed how they’re working together to transition to 100% renewable energy. Student activists from Penn State and Temple University also shared best practices for individuals interested in pursuing climate activism on their own campuses.

Here are five of the takeaways they shared.

1. It’s okay to start small.

Each campus has its own unique challenges associated with transitioning to renewable energy. The size of the university, its endowment, and numerous other factors influence the willingness of a college’s administration to commit to renewable energy goals.

Even if it seems like the odds are stacked against you, students are encouraged to push for affordable and easily achievable energy reductions while encouraging more sweeping changes. Doing so exemplifies that even the smallest adjustments have a substantial environmental impact, as campus buildings consume more than four-fifths of the energy used by universities.

Students can take simple steps to reduce energy consumption like unplugging electronics when they’re not in use, turning off the lights before leaving for the day, and using fans instead of AC. Universities can follow suit by reducing energy use in their common spaces, academic buildings, and dorms.

Bryn Mawr College began its energy reduction initiative by focusing on consumption in dorms and academic buildings. The school then proceeded to ramp up its renewable energy efforts and other sustainability work over the following years.

“We took some early actions that were around piecemeal things — LED lightbulbs, adjusting thermostats at different times, and that got us a little bit of the way [to our goal of reducing carbon emissions by 30%],” shared President Cassidy.

2. Positivity and persistence lead to change.

Student activists on the panel echoed the sentiment that building strong relationships with changemakers at your institution — and following up after they tell you no — are the most vital actions you can take. At universities without a designated sustainability office, the responsibility for enacting such changes often falls upon administrators who have a host of other responsibilities on their hands.

Penn State student activist Divya Jain emphasized that rallying staff members for support and reiterating that climate change must be immediately addressed are strategies that helped her convey renewable energy as an urgent issue.

“The biggest thing that’s been really important to get Penn State to switch to renewables has been the constant pressure from students, from faculty, and especially from staff who are always there to put pressure on the administration and constantly emphasize the importance of renewable energy — and why it’s important that we switch now rather than at some oblivious time in the future,” she said.

3. While students can push for shorter renewable energy timelines, universities are often bound to energy contracts that limit their autonomy.

University of Pittsburgh Director of Sustainability Aurora Sharrard confirmed that you can always advocate for faster movement on 100% renewable energy targets, but that there are obstacles to consider when making your inquiry.

“When you ask that question, you should figure out when your contacts are up for your regular electrical procurement… Those contacts will lock you into certain things. And these long-term power purchase agreements, they also lock you in,” she said. “Every time one of those contacts comes up is incredibly important.”

The University of Pittsburgh kept these considerations in mind while crafting their sustainability plan, which states they aim to produce or procure 50% of electricity from renewable sources by 2030 and reach carbon neutrality by 2037.

The University of Pennsylvania signed a solar power purchase agreement covered in an April Green Philly article, which will reduce the university’s carbon emissions by 45% from its 2009 levels and make it the largest solar power project in Pennsylvania.

President Cassidy also highlighted the importance of approaching institutions with a comprehensive understanding of your goals and a multifaceted strategy.

“If you want to move that goal up, you need to have a strategy that’s multipronged, because 100% renewable is one thing, but carbon neutrality and goals like that require institutions to do a lot of different things. So having too narrow a focus doesn’t give the institutions enough latitude to figure out how they’re going to get there,” she explained.

4. Leverage donations to encourage the switch to renewable energy.

Parents, alumni, and other individuals with financial connections to universities have influence over the projects schools are willing to invest in. As Dr. Sharrard of the University of Pittsburgh shared, “Alumni have a powerful voice and money talks.”

Jain detailed specific ways individuals can bolster their position on renewables and leverage the prospect of donations to ensure energy goals are met.

“If people reach out to you later, especially asking for donations, you can say ‘I would love to donate, what are we doing about these goals?’ or ‘I would love for these donations to go to clean energy goals’… Voicing to people at the university that I went here, I’m proud of this school, and I want this school to be better goes a long way,” she explained.

5. Everyone has the ability to support renewable energy initiatives in Pennsylvania.

College campuses play a crucial role in reducing emissions and building a cleaner, healthier future for Pennsylvania residents. PennEnvironment urges all of us to get involved in encouraging state universities — and other local industries — to commit to renewable energy transitions.

You can sign the Environment America Campuses Petition and the PennEnvironment 100% Renewable Energy for PA petition to help.

College students interested in planning a campaign on their own campus can use PennEnvironment’s resource guide to get started.

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Avery Matteo
Avery is a junior at Bryn Mawr College majoring in Environmental Studies and minoring in English. She is currently an Editorial Intern at Green Philly. In her free time, you can find her curled up with an iced coffee, a book, and her adorable dog Cosmo. View all posts by Avery Matteo

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