Environment America Blog

A banner year for renewable energy on college campuses

By Bronte Payne
Director, Campaign for 100% Renewable Campuses

The end of each year at college was always the same. The dorms were unbearably hot (we didn’t finish spring quarter until mid-June), and we were always exhausted from studying deep into the night for finals.

Heat and exhaustion aside, the end of the year was also a time to reminisce about all the past year’s highlights: surviving Dr. Slough’s organic chemistry class, celebrating with the soccer team after beating our bitter rivals (Hope College), or heading to South Haven beach for the annual Day of Gracious Living (where classes are canceled and students head to the beach during spring quarter).

I’m not a student anymore, but as the 100% Renewable Campuses Campaign Director for Environment America, I want to take a look back at the many actions colleges and universities took this year to transition to 100 percent renewable energy. This past school year, Environment America worked with students, faculty and staff at over 50 colleges and universities across the country to urge their campuses to commit to using power only from renewable sources — namely wind and solar.

And I’m happy to say there were a lot of victories.

To kick off the school year, the entire University of California system announced that all 10 of its campuses would transition to clean electricity by 2025. The plan also established goals to reduce energy use and pledged not to use natural gas for heat and hot water in any new buildings or major renovations starting in June 2019. Environment America partnered with CALPIRG, whose organizers and student leaders mobilized thousands of students, partnered with the Student Government Association and worked with dozens of faculty to demonstrate support for 100 percent clean energy.

Shortly after the University of California made its commitment, Boston University — which has the largest student body of any school in Mass. — finalized a plan to purchase wind power to meet 100 percent of the campus’ electricity needs.

In October, the University of Richmond announced that it would take steps to power all its electricity needs with solar energy.

Stanford University set a similar goal in December, announcing that they would power their campus entirely with renewable electricity in just three years. This puts the university on track to hit the 100 percent renewable electricity mark more than two decades ahead of the state of California’s goal of a carbon-free grid by 2045.

About a month later, Middlebury College joined the ranks, pledging to source 100 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2028. Middlebury will transition its core Vermont campus entirely away from fossil fuels for electricity and heating, and use Vermont-based renewable energy projects whenever possible.

In February, just weeks after announcing a commitment to 100 percent renewable electricity, Brown University announced that it would be taking its climate action leadership to the next level. Brown plans to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 75 percent below last year’s levels by 2025 and eradicate all fossil-fuel use for heating and cooling by 2040. This plan includes a transition to 100 percent renewable electricity, a thermal efficiency project to reduce energy use and a shift to renewable energy sources for heating and cooling on campus.

Following Brown University’s announcement, the students at the University of Massachusetts Amherst passed a referendum — with 92 percent of the vote — calling for the university to generate 100 percent of its energy from renewable sources. Students at UMass Amherst launched a campaign for 100 percent renewable energy in the spring of 2017, and since then, students have educated over 5,000 peers each semester about the campaign, collected over 2,000 petition signatures and garnered over 100 faculty endorsements.

Building on the commitment made by the University of California system, the University of California, Berkeley committed to transition to 100 percent clean sources for all of its energy, including heating, transportation and electricity by 2050. CALPIRG Students led the effort for a commitment to 100 percent clean energy at UC Berkeley by mobilizing thousands of students and working closely with student leaders and the ASUC Student Government.

At Princeton University, in response to a campaign launched by the Princeton Student Climate Initiative, a student government referendum urging bolder climate action passed with 95 percent of undergraduate support. The referendum calls on Princeton to broaden its emission assessments, set a clearer timeline for carbon neutrality by 2046 and increase student engagement in campus climate action.

Finally, in April, Vanderbilt University celebrated Earth Day by becoming one of the first colleges or universities in the Southeast to commit to 100 percent renewable energy. This wide-ranging commitment includes developing more clean energy on campus, investing in large-scale off campus renewable energy sources, decreasing the carbon footprint from on-campus vehicles and creating more sustainable infrastructure. Students Promoting Environmental Awareness and Responsibility (SPEAR) led the effort. Over 3,000 students, 76 student organizations and the Vanderbilt Student Government Association stood with SPEAR in support of a transition to 100 percent renewable energy.

At the end of the school year, sitting in my hot dorm room and reminiscing about classes (the fun and the challenging), soccer season and parties (at the beach and elsewhere), I remember thinking about all we had experienced that year. But I also remember getting excited about the future.

Colleges and universities play such a big role in that future, preparing the leaders and thinkers of the next generation, and taking bold environmental action in order to protect that future.

That’s why you may notice a pattern emerging in this year’s college and university achievements. The victories we’ve seen on campuses across the country have been led by those future leaders and thinkers — the students themselves. Next school year, we are excited to continue partnering with active and engaged students to commit colleges and universities to transitioning entirely to renewable energy.