“It is a great day at St. Olaf, because today we are celebrating the fact that as this college begins its 143rd year we are carbon neutral with respect to all of our electricity use,” President David Anderson ’74 said in his speech at Opening Convocation on Sept. 8. His declaration was met with enthusiastic cheers from the audience. St. Olaf’s energy efficiency and environmental stewardship set the tone for the chapel service, with fellow speakers Professor of Chemistry Paul Jackson ’92 and Assistant Vice President for Facilities Peter Sandberg offering speeches on St. Olaf’s energy-related history and ongoing efforts to be conscious of its environmental impact.
The news earned a particularly enthusiastic reception in light of the fact that the consumption of electricity has dropped even as St. Olaf has expanded with the addition of Regents Hall and Buntrock Commons, and that St. Olaf’s level of carbon emitted per student is one of the lowest in the country.
Visible and concrete examples of the college’s devotion to achieving carbon neutrality on campus include a new 40-acre solar garden as well as with Big Ole the wind turbine. Big Ole is directly connected to St. Olaf and provides more than enough electricity to power Regents Hall of Natural Sciences (RNS). According to the St. Olaf facilities web page, the excess power “is enough to offset the small natural gas increase at the heating plant, so RNS and the turbine combined are a net zero project.”
However, Big Ole can’t power the entire campus, and St. Olaf’s energy efficiency is complex, involving a combination of carbon offsets and renewable energy certificates.
Offsets “represent the act of reducing, avoiding, destroying or sequestering the equivalent of a ton of greenhouse gas (GHG) in one place to ‘offset’ an emission taking place somewhere else,” according to GreenBiz, an online producer of research on environmental sustainability. In the example above, Big Ole is used to offset the increase in carbon resulting from Regents Hall.
Renewable energy certificates, or RECs, represent one megawatt hour of clean energy, including energy produced from solar, wind, or hydroelectric sources. Since the energy produced from these sources generates very little, or no carbon, it counts as an “indirect emission reduction, whereby a clean energy source offsets the demand for dirty fossil-fueled energy,” according to GreenBiz.
RECs have sometimes faced scrutiny for their principles.
“The worst of the carbon-offset programs resemble the Catholic Church’s sale of indulgences back before the Reformation,” Dennis Hayes, president of the environmental grant-making group Bullitt Foundation, said.
His comparison is premised on the fact that RECs and other carbon credits are offered to organizations for additional money, even as they continue to produce dirty energy.
Others argue that the indulgence metaphor is intrinsically flawed as RECs and other carbon credits effectively lessen the environmental impact of organizations.
According to Sandberg, Xcel Energy gives St. Olaf an energy credit for the power created by the school’s own renewable energy resources, in addition to another credit for St. Olaf’s subscriptions to off-site renewable energy producers.
These subscriptions include Xcel’s “windsource, carbon-free electric program” and solar energy from two Geronimo Energy projects. In sum, St. Olaf’s subscription to 40 percent of the energy from a new Geronimo Energy solar garden, in addition to an earlier 10 percent subscription to a separate Geronimo project, combines with the college’s commitment to Xcel’s windsource program and the power from Big Ole to make St. Olaf’s purchased electricity completely carbon-free. The level of carbon emitted per student is down 47 percent since 2001.