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Universities have always been centers for thought leadership. But the urgency surrounding the climate change issue means many schools are going beyond conceptual research and education and taking concrete action to change the way they impact their local environments.

One notable example? In the Northeast, universities have traditionally used heating oil or natural gas in their boiler systems to provide heat during the cold winter months. Even the most efficient boilers burning traditional heating oil or natural gas release substantial greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. 

That means schools need to make bold choices that go beyond revising curriculum to address the complex social, cultural and financial impacts of climate change. Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island is doing both. Classes like Earth Poetics: Literature and Climate Change provide context beyond the science and examine the pressures vulnerable populations are experiencing because of climate change. Meanwhile, the school has invested in a 50-megawatt solar facility built on an abandoned gravel pit to eventually replace its reliance on natural gas for its campus heating. Brown is on track to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent in the next two years, and be net zero in emissions by 2040. 

Since universities hold such prominent places in their communities, it’s important to walk the walk as much as they talk the talk. And while universities like Brown and Harvard have substantial resources to aggressively pursue their net zero emissions goals, other schools have harder choices to make. Their challenge? Find a realistic heating option that reduces a university’s carbon footprint without punching a hole in budgets that have already been stretched by everything from COVID to inflation-driven cost increases.

Luckily, organizations like the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) provide a powerful array of resources to help schools find renewable energy solutions no matter the size of their institution—or their budget. AASHE publishes report cards on schools’ progress toward sustainability and links universities to providers that can help them on that journey. By sharing use cases and best practices, university decision-makers can take some of the risk out of a long-term commitment to reducing emissions. 

Keene State College in New Hampshire found a solution that helped reach its goal of 100-percent sustainable power production—and do it without costly retrofitting or replacement of its three utility grade steam boilers. The school switched from traditional heavy heating oil to Lifecycle Renewables’ Truburn, a fuel made from recycled waste vegetable oil collected from restaurants in the region. The new fuel costs roughly the same as traditional heating oil and works in Keene State’s legacy heat system with no extensive modifications. It’s a carbon-neutral renewable energy solution that dramatically reduces the school’s carbon footprint without increasing its heating bills or putting pressure on its infrastructure costs.  Schools like Brown, Harvard and Keene State are using a variety of tools—and fuels—to achieve their sustainability goals. And their commitment to sustainability research is leading the way in producing a new generation of climate-aware professionals in disciplines far beyond the hard sciences. To learn more about how universities and other organizations with large-scale heating needs are choosing sustainability, talk to Lifecycle Renewables today.