Update on Yale’s sustainability initiatives

Six months ago, President Peter Salovey announced six sustainability initiatives. Here’s an update from the university on those projects.

“Global climate change and its consequences are critical challenges of our time, and Yale has important and necessary roles to play in addressing them,” Salovey said when he launched the initiatives in August. He noted that the initiatives reflected suggestions from students, faculty, alumni, and staff.

The commitments involved investment in energy conservation and greenhouse gas reduction; exploration of pricing the university’s carbon dioxide emissions; expansion of renewable energy; verification of Yale’s greenhouse gas emissions accounting; fellowships to spur innovation in the field of sustainability; and a critical review of the ambitiousness of the Sustainability Strategic Plan.

Below are the university’s progress reports on each of the initiatives.

$21 million capital investment for energy conservation and greenhouse gas reduction

The Office of Facilities reports that Yale is on track to exceed its goal to invest  $7 million this year in capital projects to improve energy efficiency. Projects are scheduled to be completed in 10 buildings and five parking garages on the Central and Medical campuses, resulting in a reduction of approximately 5,600 metric tons of carbon dioxide. The $7 million investment is part of a three-year, $21 million total commitment. These capital investments include an “Energy Solutions Fund” of $100,000 per year that is reserved for student-inspired and proposed projects focusing on energy conservation. Yale’s Office of Facilities received a number of outstanding student proposals, and seven finalists were selected for additional concept development with Yale’s Office of Sustainability staff. Proposals under development include installations of LED lights, replacement of inefficient refrigerators, and pilots for new technologies and engagement tools.

Presidential Carbon Charge Task Force

Sterling Professor of Economics William Nordhaus is the chair of a task force examining whether and how Yale might institute a carbon pricing mechanism as part of its sustainability efforts. Yale leaders are not aware of any university that has implemented a university-wide unit level carbon charge, and the task force is developing a model that could be adopted by other universities. The task force plans to issue its report in April. The task force, whose members include students and leading faculty members, is an example of how faculty research on climate change solutions can be integrated into the university’s operations and student life on campus. The task force has been meeting since October, and the group has solicited the Yale community for ideas through a prize competition. It also organized a full-day meeting with experts from around the country to determine the state of carbon pricing in companies and universities.

Expanded deployment of renewable energy

Yale’s growing portfolio of renewable energy installations will include a 350,000-square-foot array of solar panels on the West Campus. The Office of Facilities reports that the system is larger than initially planned and will be fully operational by mid-April.

Yale also joined with the State of Connecticut through its “Solarize U” program to encourage faculty, staff, and the community to install residential solar photovoltaic systems. The program will launch in late March.

Greenhouse gas emissions disclosure, third-party verification, and comparability of data

In October, Yale joined The Climate Registry, a U.S. non-profit that sets consistent and transparent standards to calculate, verify, and publicly report greenhouse gas emissions into a single registry. Using the internationally recognized GHG Protocol Accounting Standard and working with an outside consultant, the Office of Sustainability and Yale Facilities have begun defining Yale’s boundary of emissions. Once the boundary definition is complete, GHG data for 2014 will be collected for analysis and submission to the Climate Registry by June 30, 2015. By December 2015, third-party verification of the submittal will be completed by a firm that is accredited by the American National Standards Institute to conduct the audit. Adopting standardized accounting and verification is considered central to making useful comparisons among Yale’s peer institutions and to learning from one another’s examples.

New Green Innovation Fellowships 

The Yale Entrepreneurial Institute (YEI) recently awarded its first two Green Innovation Fellowships this year for promising student ventures in the field of sustainability:

  1. Grovio develops unmanned aerial systems (UAVs) that capture data and accompanying software for analysis of farmlands. Currently, farmers apply excessive amounts of costly and harmful fertilizer and pesticides because they cannot determine how much is needed where. Excess fertilizer can run off into rivers and streams, exacerbating algae blooms that kill off aquatic life. In addition, pesticides have long been known to have harmful effects on soil, water, plants, and animals. Real-time remote sensing will allow farmers to reduce their fertilizer and pesticide input by providing them with actionable data about their farmland. One of the two co-founders of Grovio is Yale College sophomore Sachith Gullapalli. 
  2. Coral Vita aims to restore threatened reefs around the world and directly improve the livelihoods of millions dependent on healthy reefs. Coral reefs have significantly declined in populations over the past several decades and, according to projections, will suffer 75% mortality globally by 2050. Reefs act as nurseries for up to 70% of commercially caught tropical fish, and reduce wave surges during storms and tsunamis by over 50%. The company will address the urgent and widespread problem of coral reef degradation by growing and installing resilient corals through the scientifically backed process known as coral farming. They will leverage economic stakeholders, such as luxury hotels and governments, to rapidly scale this typically not-for-profit endeavor. The co-founders of Coral Vita are Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies students Gator Halpern and Sam Teicher.

Each fellowship provides $15,000 in grant funding and offers three to five dedicated mentors from relevant business fields. The ventures selected for these fellowships are eligible to apply for up to $100,000 in follow-on funding through the YEI Innovation Fund. Fellows will have access to the growing array of green innovation programs being developed at the Center for Business and Environment, the Center for Engineering Innovation and Design, and related initiatives across the university. 

Ambitious goals for the university and school-specific plans

Salovey asked the Sustainability Advisory Council to review the university’s current Sustainability Strategic Plan and to consider whether Yale’s university-wide goals were ambitious enough.

Last fall, Professor Brad Gentry taught a class in which the students from various schools were tasked with analyzing the current plan and making recommendations as to how Yale might become more ambitious. At the end of the semester the student teams made presentations to their peers as well as faculty and staff members from throughout the university. Their recommendations informed a report to Salovey from the Sustainability Advisory Council, which is composed of faculty members and high-level administrators. The council members will meet with Salovey later this month to discuss their recommendations and outline next steps. The class is an example of how Yale is integrating faculty teaching and student research in the university’s sustainability operations.

In addition, the Office of Sustainability collaborated with each of Yale’s professional schools to develop a set of Sustainability Action Plans that are tailored to the disciplines and physical contexts of the schools. Each professional school now has a Sustainability Action Plan. Several cultural spaces, such as the Yale University Art Gallery, also have plans. In January, the Office of Sustainability convened a Sustainability Summit where each school and museum offered highlights from their plans.