A small liberal arts school in Vermont, Green Mountain College, took the opportunity of its 174th commencement ceremony last weekend to announce that it has achieved “climate neutrality” – an equilibrium between the carbon dioxide that it emits and the carbon dioxide it removes. Green Mountain reached this milestone partly through conventional means including purchased carbon offsets, but it also relied on some unique local resources. Though these resources are site-specific, the college’s success may encourage other schools, institutions and businesses to take stock of the local opportunities that are available for developing an effective sustainability plan.
Green Mountain College and Cow Power
Cutting fossil fuel consumption is a challenge for any school, especially in states like Vermont where temperatures can reach extremes during the academic year. Back in 2006, Green Mountain saw an opportunity in the Cow Power carbon offset purchase program developed by the local utility, Central Vermont Public Service Corporation. The program generates power from biogas produced on local dairy farms, and Green Mountain became one of the first customers to climb on board. Since the power is local, participating dairies can also serve as learning labs for students and the general public.
The most significant element in Green Mountain’s effort is its new biomass plant, which came online in 2010 and burns locally sourced wood chips. It provides the vast majority of heat for the campus – about 85 percent – and about 20 percent of its electricity. According to the college, the students were instrumental in advocating for the use of alternative energy on campus, which ultimately lead to the construction of the biomass plant. They also voted to fund a feasibility study for the plant through student activities fees.
Creative Use of Local Resources
All things being equal, a carbon offset is a carbon offset. However, Green Mountain illustrates the potentials for enhancing a sustainability program by engaging employees in local operations that provide the energy behind those credits. The participating dairy farms help students at Green Mountain to see sustainability first-hand as a working reality, not just a theory or demo project. The last few years have also seen a flurry of alternative energy activity at the school’s own in-house farm, with the installation of student-developed wind turbine, solar hot water heater, and solar thermal greenhouses.
As a recent survey by Brighter Planet underscores, sustainability can provide an important platform for companies to build a more active and involved workforce. Aside from benefiting the bottom line, and bottom-up creativity can play a significant role in enabling a company to set and achieve footprint goals, as aptly demonstrated by the students of Green Mountain College.
Image: Cow by sethmcgrath on flickr.com.