Time for more N.C. universities to go ‘green’

Appalachian State is a leader among North Carolina universities in sustainability.
Appalachian State is a leader among North Carolina universities in sustainability.

With colleges and universities across our state back for the fall semester, environmental sustainability is high on their priority lists – and that’s good for their bottom lines and for our planet.

At UNC Greensboro, university officials are touting the sustainability of the campus police building and Spartan Village residential community – two newer structures that were recently awarded the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) silver certification.

They’re also proud of another environmentally friendly feature, even if it’s an idea that has actually been around for thousands of years: the rain bucket. Over the summer, UNC Greensboro added a 2,500-gallon cistern to catch rainwater that will be used to irrigate natural areas that don’t have sprinkler systems.

It’s the latest step in the university’s ongoing efforts to reduce water use. Since the 2002-2003 academic year, officials say, water consumption on campus has dropped 74 percent per square foot of building space, saving more than $15 million. That’s helped the university earn a gold rating from the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System, a self-reporting mechanism managed by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE).

UNC Chapel Hill and Appalachian State also hold the gold rating from AASHE. In the newest issue of the Sierra Club’s magazine, five N.C. institutions rank among the top 65 greenest colleges and universities, or “Cool Schools,” nationally.

UNC Chapel Hill ranks No. 15, followed by Appalachian State at No. 23, Duke at No. 27, Warren Wilson College at No. 54, and UNC Greensboro at No. 63.

UNC Chapel Hill’s high ranking recognizes the long-term success of its sustainability office, which directs a wide array of classroom, policy and service initiatives. Since 2000, the university has reduced water use by 60 percent per square foot.

Energy use is also declining on campus, dropping 31 percent per square foot since 2003. Collectively, since 2003, UNC Chapel Hill’s sustainability initiatives have slashed $223 million in energy costs and saved nearly $25 million on water expenses.

N.C. State’s strategic plan for sustainability maps a clear path for reducing its environmental footprint. Its innovative initiatives include developing a co-generation plant that enables the university to create some of its own electricity, a sustainability living and learning community called EcoVillage, and a student-led fund that awards grants for campus sustainability projects.

Appalachian State estimates that the average student, faculty and staff commuter drives about 4,300 miles a year. For $8 apiece, they can buy carbon offsets as part of the university’s Carbon Neutral Commuter program. The offset fees are invested in projects that help counteract the release of greenhouse gases. The initiative has easily surpassed the expected participation rate of 2 to 3 percent, attracting 17.5 percent of eligible people.

It’s time for more of our higher education institutions to follow suit. Some already are. UNC Charlotte, for example, is starting this year to implement a multi-part sustainability plan. It has only to look at some of its peer institutions around the state for proof that it’s making a wise investment.

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact and a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University. Stephen Martin is a director at the Center for Creative Leadership. They can be reached at