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How could a community grow in population while cutting carbon emissions? That is the challenge facing the whole planet in the fight against climate change. NPR's Dan Charles reports on how Penn State University is doing that.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: From the top of Beaver Stadium, one of the very biggest stadiums in the entire world, you can see just part of Penn State's vast and beautiful campus.
ROB COOPER: You've picked a spectacular day to come visit, didn't you?
CHARLES: Rob Cooper is the university's director of engineering and energy.
COOPER: We've got 600 major buildings here over 22 million square feet.
CHARLES: Parking lots with thousands of cars, a couple of gas burning steam plants for heating.
COOPER: We have our own water system, wells. We have our own wastewater plant.
CHARLES: Basically, it's a city, with 60,000 people when students are on campus, a lot more when there's a football game. And like most American cities, it runs largely on fossil fuels, releasing hundreds of thousands of tons of greenhouse gases every year from those steam plants, from power stations far away that supply electricity, from the cars that people drive to campus, from aircraft that faculty take to conferences.
Penn State has added up all those emissions over the past 20 years, and it makes kind of an amazing graph. Twenty years ago, the line was going up, up, up. The university was growing, more people, more buildings, burning more coal and gas, just like the rest of America. And then you get to 2004, and the line suddenly changes direction. It starts falling like it's rolling down a mountain. And it's been falling ever since, even though the university is still growing.
COOPER: Yeah. We've been pretty successful over the last 15 years.
CHARLES: I wanted to know how it happened, so I went to see Professor Chris Uhl.
CHRIS UHL: I'm in the department of biology and my, I guess, passion is with ecology.
CHARLES: In the mid-1990s, Uhl helped organize a small environmental movement on campus. There were students calculating greenhouse emissions from specific buildings, looking at technical alternatives.
UHL: When we unveiled these different reports, we would meet on the steps of Old Main, which is, you know, it's, like, this big center of the university. And lots of people showed up. You know, the press was there.
CHARLES: They put the university under pressure. And as it happened, these activists had some allies deep inside the university administration - building engineers, maintenance guys - led by a former Navy officer named Ford Stryker, who was in charge of buildings and construction.
FORD STRYKER: We've seen a lot of evidence that global warming was a real thing, and, you know, we were concerned about it.
CHARLES: Stryker pulled off a classic bureaucratic move. He convinced the university president to declare environmental stewardship an official priority - and the pressure from students probably helped. This gave him leverage inside the administration. He got the university to set up a fund to pay for upgrades that cut greenhouse emissions.
STRYKER: It took a while (laughter) to get the budget guys and, you know, the finance guys to agree. But, you know, we're like...
CHARLES: They had to be convinced that it was money that could be paid back.
STRYKER: Oh, yeah, heck, yeah. I mean, we had to demonstrate that we were actually saving money.
CHARLES: And this is what turned around that graph of greenhouse emissions - a whole bunch of projects that cut the university's demand for energy. And they typically paid for themselves within 10 years through lower energy bills. Rob Cooper, who worked for Stryker, says some of what they did was really basic, like fine-tuning heating and air conditioning systems.
COOPER: And you'd be surprised what you find when you try to tune up a building's HVAC system. It's one of the shortest paybacks. It's consistently three to five years on every building that we go into.
CHARLES: In the central heating plant, they switched the fuel from coal to natural gas. They installed new energy-saving motors and windows. This year, the university signed a deal to buy electricity from a new 500-acre solar farm. Here's Andrew Gutberlet, Penn State's manager of engineering services.
ANDREW GUTBERLET: Every time we looked at it before, the economics weren't there. We could not get solar power or any renewable energy for less than we were buying it off of the grid until now.
CHARLES: Penn State's greenhouse emissions now are down by a third compared to the peak in 2004. In a few years with solar power rolling in, they should be down almost 50%, which seems really hopeful because, in principle, any city could do this. The country could.
GUTBERLET: In essence, we are demonstrating that this can be done.
CHARLES: Two notes of caution, though. First, Penn State's not a regular city with thousands of homeowners making their own decisions. It owns all the buildings and the heating plants. It can make decisions that take 10 years to pay off. And the second caution is cutting emissions in half is good, but it's not enough, not if you're really trying to stop global warming. So Penn State has a much more ambitious goal - an 80% reduction by 2050. Some people on campus are pushing for 100%. So I ask Shelley McKeague, the person at Penn State who's in charge of measuring those emissions, are you going to make that goal?
SHELLEY MCKEAGUE: You're asking me?
MCKEAGUE: We need to. I mean, do we have a concrete plan to get there? We do not. And the reality is the country doesn't either.
CHARLES: But they are studying lots of possibilities, figuring out how much each one would cost, what it would accomplish. So far, they are on track to reach their goal. Dan Charles, NPR News.
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