05/14/2010 03:15 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A University's Steep Path Towards Carbon Neutrality

Sitting on top of the former College of Nursing and Healthcare Innovation building at Arizona State University is a peculiar sight for new visitors on campus. What looks like a row of six large outdoor fans cooling off the heads of passersby during the scorching summer months is, in fact, a group of electricity-producing wind turbines.

On an average day, the turbines, part of an addition to the building that will soon house ASU's revolutionary School of Sustainability, can produce enough electricity to power about 36 computers.

The turbines are a notable symbol of the university's high-profile efforts to promote environmental sustainability.

In addition to the turbines, ASU President Michael Crow recently made a pledge to the American College & University President's Climate Commitment to remold Arizona State's four campuses to be "carbon neutral" by 2025, meaning a 100 percent decrease in direct greenhouse gas emissions from on-campus activities and indirect emissions from the energy purchased from off-campus sources.

"Compared to where most of the world is and where we are, they are bold goals, but...we like to push boundaries and drive standards," industrial engineering sophomore and University Sustainability Practices Department worker Alex Davis said.

The ambitious agenda to accomplish this is detailed in the ASU Carbon Neutrality Action Plan, adopted in September 2009.

The University laid some solid groundwork for the pledge when they committed to a two-phase $40 million dollar bond program called the Energy Services and Performance Contract, funded through a loan from APS Energy Services, a leading energy utilities provider in the Phoenix area and the main source of ASU's purchased energy.

"These bonds will eventually be paid back by future energy cost savings created from campus-wide efficiency projects," Davis said, "such as the retrofitting of indoor and outdoor lighting systems, updated motor replacements, upgraded HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning) systems, steam pipe installations, digital sub-metering of campus buildings and new installations of solar photovoltaic parking covers."

However, the effort to create lasting and meaningful environmental policies cannot be successful and complete without an educated, aware and actively engaged university community.

"There are lots of short-term little things we can do, but it's really about creating a paradigm shift for the community," Davis said.

ASU's student government has tried to help this happen.

"I believe that student government, when working together with the student body and any interested stakeholder organizations, can positively impact Arizona State's progress towards climate neutrality by 2025," said ASU Student Vice President Of Policy Michael Wong, whose new administration has plans for several large energy-related projects.

"One of our ideas involves working with the university to retrofit our Safety Escort Service vans in conjunction with other university vehicles to run on locally-produced biodiesel," he said. "We plan on doing this by using all of the potential profit to leverage a contract for biodiesel with local gas stations."

Natalie Fleming, a sustainability sophomore and current Student Government Campus Environment Director, agrees that community-based action needs to be taken to address student apathy and inform on-campus residents about new and changing policies.

"Often times students actually want to do the right thing, but they don't know, for instance, what can and can't be put in recycling bins," she said.

However, some students believe getting ASU's extensive community involved will require some major work.

"I tend to, as a sustainability student, notice the things that go on campus dealing with the carbon neutral plan, but for the average student they probably wouldn't think twice about it unless they saw actual physical changes to the campus," said Sustainability School senior Ian Nuefeld.

ASU's ambitious carbon-neutralizing commitments and the projects and actions being made to reach them are generally viewed very favorably by the students and staff at one of the nation's largest public universities.

"The carbon neutrality goal is I think seen by some as a little bit extreme, but I believe it's actually really manageable for us," Fleming said. "I think it's a work in progress, I think we'll see meaningful change down the road, both in the short and long term."

"I definitely think it's an attainable goal," Davis said.

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