Justin Bates makes the rounds on his campus carrying a sack of light bulbs. They are compact fluorescent models -- the kind that use less energy than the standard incandescent ones found in many dorm rooms.
Bates, a senior at Williams College, heads an environmental student group that has spent recent months distributing 1,000 of the fluorescent bulbs.
“It allows us to make a difference with an energy footprint, and it gives us the chance to have discussions with students about global warming and energy consumption," Bates said.
More than a year ago, Bates helped form a group of students and faculty who were concerned about Williams' energy consumption, which had increased 50 percent over the past 15 years. During that time, the college's greenhouse gas emissions increased 44 percent. A petition asking Williams administrators to mitigate the college's effects on global warming received hundreds of signatures, spurring Morton Schapiro, Williams' president, to form a faculty and student Climate Action Committee.
Taking into account some of that group's recommendations, Schapiro announced this week that Williams wants to be 10 percent below its 1990-1 levels of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. It’s the type of announcement that is beginning to define environmental commitment in an era when institutions brag about their "green" practices and presidents across the country set timetables on their energy-reduction plans.
Richard C. Levin, president of Yale University, asked leaders this week at the World Economic Forum to consider lowering their effect on global warming. Two years ago, his institution vowed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 10 percent below the 1990 level by the year 2020, even though university officials expect the physical plant to grow by 15 percent over the same time.
The college has outlined a greenhouse gas reduction strategy, which includes installing sensors that regulate heat, air conditioning and lighting, as well as running its bus fleet on low-emitting fuels. Yale is also distributing fluorescent bulbs to students and asking them to sign a pledge to reduce their energy use.
Julie Newman, director of the Yale Office of Sustainability, said the college is still figuring out how it wants to invest in renewable energy such as solar panels and small-scale wind power. She said the university wants to bring in new sources of energy, not just reduce its current usage.
Colleges are also announcing plans to become greenhouse gas neutral, meaning that they will create the energy that they use up. College of the Atlantic, in Bar Harbor, Maine, announced last year that they were working toward that benchmark and are also aiming to become fully reliant on renewable energy by 2015.
David Hales, president of College of the Atlantic, said presidents are putting timetables on their energy plans in order to encourage development of the technologies needed to make the goals realistic.
"My sense is that we're all reacting to the same phenomenon -- a strong conviction among Americans that climate change is real and we ought to do something about it," Hales said. "We're feeling the same pressure as businesses."
Judy Walton, executive director of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, said it makes sense that colleges are setting similar energy targets because some have held meetings to discuss best practices.
Added Stephen Klass, vice president for operations at Williams: “The way I see it, you go to these conferences to rally around these principles rather than to get into a competition."
Walton's association is pushing campus leaders to sign the "American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment," which asks colleges to develop and publish plans to reduce carbon emissions. And Hales heads the higher education committee of the American Council on Renewable Energy, which is encouraging colleges by 2010 to purchase 100 percent renewable energy, invest at least 10 percent of their endowments into funds which support renewable energy companies and create renewable energy courses of study.
The question is: Will colleges be willing to fund their environmental projects?
“We recognize many of the things we want to do cost money up front but eventually lead to savings.” said Stephanie Boyd, who works in the vice president for operations office at Williams.
Added Klass: "[Sustainability] costs are now part of our budget. We don't want to risk treating it like a building element that can be taken out of a project.”
In his letter, Schapiro noted that “We will have to adjust to working within budgets, for individual projects and for the college as a whole, that include significant investments in sustainability. Since resources are finite, difficult decisions on tradeoffs lie ahead.”
Williams is in the midst of a major period of building.
“There’s going to be a huge increase in square footage, so the only way for us to meet our target is to have buildings that are environmentally sound,” said Sarah Gardner, associate director of the Center for Environmental Studies at Williams.
Bates, the Williams student, said the college's energy plans cannot work without student participation. His group is sponsoring competitions and awarding prizes for dorms that conserve the most energy. And he is working with Gardner on a proposal to ban or limit the use of dorm miniature fridges -- which, Bates said, are a major energy drain.