Sustainability in Higher Education: We’ve Left Coal Behind – What Now?

This post is based on research from “State of Sustainability in Higher Education 2017: Trends in Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation,” a report from Sightlines and the University of New Hampshire (UNH) available for download Feb. 28. Register for our free webinar on Feb. 27 for an exclusive look at the complete findings.

One of higher education’s major sustainability accomplishments to date is leaving coal behind as a primary fuel for heating campuses. In the last decade, institutions have steadily replaced coal and oil with natural gas, a fuel that is much cleaner at the point of combustion[1]. In 2007, natural gas accounted for 75 percent of stationary fossil fuel use across the Sightlines database. By 2016, this share increased to 92 percent. Due to a cleaner fuel mix, as well as efficiency improvements across the sector, fossil emissions declined by an average of 22 percent in the same period.

Natural gas is also gradually displacing coal in electricitySustainability in Higher Education: We've Left Coal Behind - What Now? 1 generation, resulting in cleaner electricity across much of the United States. Carbon intensity declined in 23 out of 26 regional electric grids between 2007 and 2014[2], and of regions making progress, nearly half achieved reductions of 20 percent or more. Campuses benefit from the progress made by their regional grids: from 2007 to 2016, purchased electric emissions across higher education declined by an average of 18 percent.

As emissions decline, institutions may be tempted to consider this a job well done. However, our work is not finished. The cheap, available and cleaner-burning nature of natural gas has led many to regard it as a “bridge” fuel between dirtier options, like coal and oil, and renewable energy. It is important to ensure natural gas remains a stepping stone in service to the renewable energy end goal. With coal behind us, the next sustainability challenge for higher education will be to avoid staying on the “bridge” for too long.

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Beware of entrenchment

Market forces have been key to catalyzing fuel switching in higher education since the 1990s. Wherever low natural gas prices coincided with a need for utility infrastructure renewal, it seemed logical for campuses to opt for modern, high-efficiency natural gas infrastructure. In last year’s State of Sustainability report, Sightlines and UNH found that utilities constitute, on average, 31 percent of the cost of running campus facilities. Unsurprisingly, moving to natural gas has been a popular solution for reducing pressure on tight operating budgets post-Great Recession.

The consequences of fuel switching decisions, however, persist much longer than the price signals that spur them. Utility infrastructure replacement is expensive and often funded by long-term bonds. As a result, institutions that invest heavily in natural gas infrastructure may find themselves “entrenched” – or locked into natural gas use by their financial obligations – for a utility system’s entire life cycle, which can reach upwards of 50 years. If this phenomenon unfolds across higher education, it could delay a transition to renewables by decades. Reactions to short-term price signals may actually leave institutions vulnerable to fossil fuel price volatility in the long run.

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The future of fuel switching

Fuel switching decisions can invoke tension between today’s needs and tomorrow’s consequences. While natural gas can reduce utility costs and carbon footprints in the short-term, institutions should approach fuel switching with a more long-term vision. Rather than investing further into natural gas infrastructure, develop a plan for gradual integration of renewables – first as supplemental and then core energy sources. Rather than waiting for current utility systems to pass end-of-life, strive to replace fossil fuel infrastructure with renewables as soon as financial obligations are met.

As the economics of renewable energy become more advantageous, a growing number of forward-looking institutions are adopting comprehensive renewable strategies. These early adopters can provide guidance to others on facilitating a final fuel switch, away from fossil fuels and toward renewables. Based on research by UNH and Edison Energy[3], a four-pronged approach is recommended:

  • Seek heating systems that can interface with renewable electric or geothermal energy sources
  • Maximize on-site renewables that provide some financial benefits, but also visibility
  • Execute green power purchases from large-scale offsite projects
  • Purchase short-term unbundled RECS as needed

Register for our upcoming “State of Sustainability” webinar to learn more.

[1] Currently, carbon footprint measurement for fossil fuel is limited to emissions at the point of combustion. However, the cleaner-burning nature of natural gas may be counterbalanced by higher upstream emissions: many studies find significant emissions from methane leakage during natural gas extraction and transportation.
[2] Most recent year of data available at the time of writing
[3] Report found at