The Greenest Universities

For high school students, these 20 universities are all excellent places to immerse themselves in renewable energy technology and policy.
By John Ackerly | November 28, 2016

I’ve always enjoyed reading the Sierra Club’s annual list of the top 20 greenest schools in the U.S.  As I was thumbing through it this year, I noticed that many of the top 20 universities heat some or many of their buildings with pellets or wood chips.  After comparing notes with colleagues, we found that eight of the top 20 schools use biomass for heating.

The Sierra Club uses a wide variety of attributes to assess the greenness of a university. Only 264 out of 1,000 points assess energy use. Of that, only about 50 have to do with generating renewable energy on-site. Looking back at the list for 2014, very few of the top-ranked universities used biomass for heating.

The Sierra Club readily admits that the scoring is a reflection of the broader priorities of the organization. For example, they award a significant percentage of points in the areas of campus energy use, transportation, and fossil fuel divestment, because the Sierra Club believes that progress in these sectors is essential for addressing the climate crisis. While it defends its ranking as fair, transparent, and accurate, it makes no claim that it, or its scoring scheme, is the ultimate arbiter of campus sustainability.

Colleges and universities are excellent microcosms for observing the wide array of values, economics, and planning that go into energy and sustainability decisions. Moreover, they are the places that train the next generation of energy leaders.  The Sierra Club gives high priority to the curriculum and extracirricular activities on campus, which in turn help to shape how the campus generates, acquires, and manages energy.  My organization, the Alliance for Green Heat, is one of the beneficiaries of these curricula, as 10 of our research fellows over the past 7 years went to a school on the Sierra Club list.

The universities that use biomass for heating have long, fascinating stories about how those heating systems came to be. Most of us are familiar with many of them. Middlebury College in Vermont, ranked No. 12 on the list, may be the most high-profile system. The famous climate activist Professor Bill McKibben, who taught at Middlebury and then started, was instrumental in championing the high-tech system that heats most of the campus buildings.

The No. 1 greenest college in the U.S., as scored by Sierra Club, is the College of the Atlantic, which uses biomass boilers to provide space heating and hot water for many of the dorms.

The No. 2 school on the list is the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, which has a state-of-the-art combined heat-and-power (CHP) system that produces 65 percent of campus heating needs and 20 percent of its electrical needs. The CHP system uses biomass to drive a steam turbine and produce electricity, while natural gas is used for steam heating along with additional electricity. This building alone is responsible for reducing ESF's carbon footprint by an estimated 22 percent.

Colby ranked No. 4 on the Sierra Club list and was the only college to get more than 200 points for energy use. The $12 million heating plant is Gold LEED certified and uses 22,000 tons of wood chips to offset 1 million gallons of oil each year. Cyclonic dust collectors and a $480,000 electrostatic precipitator minimize pollutants entering the atmosphere.

Green Mountain College ranked No. 10 on the list. The idea for a biomass heat system started with students. In 2005, a freshman honors student wrote a proposal for a biomass facility so the college could stop using No. 6 heating oil, which is one of the most carbon-intensive commercial fuels. The $5.8 million project, a CHP biomass plant, now reduces oil usage by 200,000 gallons per year and heats over 85 percent of the college.

The other top 20 greenest universities that use biomass heat include Colgate, Harvard, and Colorado State. 

For high school students, these 20 universities are all excellent places to immerse themselves in renewable energy technology and policy. At least eight of the top 20 schools give future energy leaders of America the chance to get hands-on experience with modern biomass heating systems.

Author: John Ackerly
President, Alliance for Green Heat