Illustration of the Rotunda with solar panels, LED lights, and other elements related to sustainability Michael Morgenstern

Sustainability work began at UVA in the 1980s as a grassroots, student-led recycling effort. Now the entire University is involved and has set its boldest green challenge yet: to become carbon neutral by 2030 and fossil fuel-free by 2050.

The Board of Visitors set those goals in December—as well as benchmarks for reactive nitrogen, water and waste, to be met by 2030.

The carbon-neutral target is two decades sooner than the goal set for the state.

UVA announced the goals as part of its 2020-30 Sustainability Plan and in partnership with the College of William & Mary. Both schools must address major aspects of sustainability, such as curriculum, research and operations. “We’ll be able to streamline some of our resources by understanding what worked at one university (and might work at the other), and sharing what we’ve learned from programs, events, outreach and metrics, to strategies that we might tackle,” explains Andrea Trimble, director at UVA’s Office for Sustainability. “This [partnership] will advance us more quickly than if we were just two entities.” 

Part of the motivation behind these targets is Gov. Ralph Northam’s recent executive order for 100 percent of the commonwealth’s energy to come from carbon-free sources—such as solar, wind or hydroelectric, which don’t emit carbon dioxide—by 2050.

These new targets are the latest step on a sustainable path that has become important in many aspects of UVA, officials say.

President James E. Ryan’s (Law ’92) latest strategic plan pledges the University to study and be accountable for pressing societal challenges, particularly environmental sustainability. It also creates a call for the University to “live its values,” Trimble says. That call will fully integrate sustainability into operations, teaching, research and engagement, says Phoebe Crisman, director of the major in global environments and sustainability, and a professor of architecture. “We’re able to think in a holistic way about sustainability,” she says.

Andrea Trimble, director at UVA’s Office for Sustainability, sits in front of an art exhibit created in the Write Climate, Right Climate environmental sciences class. Stacey Evans

Setting Green Goals 

The school has long sought to curb its environmental impact. To measure and track its progress toward sustainability, the University has calculated its carbon footprint annually since 2009. That calculation incorporates energy produced on Grounds, fuels burned and electricity purchased, as well as transportation, commuting and many other components.

In 2016, UVA and its Committee on Sustainability launched the school’s first pan-University sustainability plan, which sought to unify operations, departments, research and curriculum in sustainable efforts, emphasizing existing Board of Visitors goals to cut greenhouse gases and nitrogen, and adding 21 others. 

Now, to meet its 2030 carbon neutrality goal, UVA must offset all of its carbon emissions on Grounds by using carbon-free energy sources. The University plans to get all of its electricity from renewable sources, create more aggressive energy standards for capital construction, and replace the Health System’s steam infrastructure with heat recovery technology. UVA also will have to reduce consumption and the impact of growth and transit.

Electricity and fuel use produce most of the school’s greenhouse gases, and in recent years the school has made major changes. In 2009, for example, it switched from coal to natural gas as its primary heat source, and by 2018 had reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 16.5 percent. Officials attribute much of the success to solar energy: Puller Solar facility and the Hollyfield Solar project (both operated by Dominion Energy), plus solar panels on Clemons Library, Skipwith Hall and the Alderman substation, together produce 21 percent of UVA’s electricity. 

The drop also resulted, Trimble says, from using heat recycling (capturing heat from air conditioning systems and using it elsewhere); improving energy efficiency, such as adding thermal blankets to heat boilers and using a centralized, chilled water delivery system; updating technology, such as replacing fluorescent lights with LEDs; and routing condensation from air conditioning units to energy plants to use for other purposes. 

Other universities are similarly seeking to reduce environmental impact. American University met its 2020 goal for carbon neutrality two years early. Vanderbilt has pledged to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. Penn State set a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 35 percent by 2020 and expects to meet that; a new goal is 80 percent by 2050. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has cut emissions 19 percent since 2007 and aims to become carbon neutral by 2050. 

Universities’ initiatives are not, however, directly comparable. For instance, UVA includes its hospital systems in its calculations; some schools do not. The UVA Health System contributes around 40 percent of the University’s emissions. “Those are incredibly energy- and material-intensive spaces,” Trimble says. Research labs, too, require extensive energy, so part of UVA’s challenge is to balance the missions of the health system, academics and research with environmental responsibility. 

By 2050, UVA will cease to burn fossil fuels for energy for heating/cooling, electricity and fleet transportation. It also may increase its use of photovoltaic solar energy, wind energy or other emerging renewable sources.

In addition to the two major goals of carbon neutrality and elimination of fossil fuels, the Board of Visitors approved three updated and more aggressive “30 by 30” goals, to be met by 2030: to reduce water use and reactive nitrogen emissions by 30 percent; to reduce UVA’s waste footprint to 30 percent of 2010 levels; and to make 30 percent of UVA’s annual food purchases sustainable.

Reactive nitrogen—not to be confused with inert nitrogen gas or N2, which is most of the nitrogen in the Earth’s atmosphere—includes many forms that come from livestock waste, burned fuels and excess fertilizers. Too much can cause serious problems, such as smog and acid rain. Much of UVA’s reactive nitrogen production involves utilities and food, Trimble says. 

Through fuel optimization (switching to natural gas from coal), renewable energy and improved energy efficiency in existing buildings, the school has reached a 17 percent reduction from 2010 levels and in 2019 released a plan to meet the rest of the goal. But the University continues to grow, expanding its square footage and nitrogen footprint. To continue to reduce nitrogen output, UVA is looking at sustainable meat options as well as reducing food waste, serving more plant-focused meals, increasing outsourcing of local food and more. 

UVA also wants to cut its use of fresh, potable water. It is looking at operations—for instance, capturing and reusing water that cools laser systems in a research lab—and at ramping up outreach to individuals. For comparison, Princeton University set a goal to reduce annual campus water usage 26 percent by 2046. Much of the University of California system has met or exceeded a goal to reduce potable water use 20 percent by 2020.

The new waste goal reaches beyond two former targets. To shrink the University’s waste footprint, strategies may include eliminating single-use plastics, expanding zero-waste events and increasing recycling bin locations. It’s the toughest of the “30 by 30” goals, Trimble says. While emerging technologies will help the other two, this goal depends on thousands of individuals changing their behavior, on more sustainable purchasing, and on more recycling and composting. 

As of 2018, the University cut its waste by 4.7 percent. For comparison, the University of Michigan set a goal to reduce waste tonnage by 40 percent of 2006 levels by 2025, and by fiscal year 2018 had cut 6 percent. The University of California aims to achieve zero waste (recognized as 90 percent diversion from landfills) by 2020 at all locations; so far it has diverted 69 percent of its solid waste. 

The UVA goals are ambitious. Achieving them will take dedication and intentional action from the entire University. “They’re very challenging—which is good. It will advance UVA’s leadership in trying to figure out how these things can effectively be done,” Trimble says. “I’m confident that we will achieve these goals, but it’s not an easy, straightforward path.”

Grassroots to a Grander Scale

UVA’s community has been ramping up its work toward sustainability for decades. In the 1980s, students created a recycling program; in 2008, departments, student groups and administrators established the first Committee on Sustainability. In 2013, efforts were joined and supported more formally with the establishment of UVA’s Office for Sustainability. Its leaders settled on a framework of three components: engaging communities; stewarding resources, buildings and grounds; and making sustainability a part of research and curriculum. 

The committee, with 40 representatives from across Grounds, is driving the University’s sustainable action on many levels. “One way UVA stands out is that we are bringing together these pan-University groups and collaborating on the strategic direction,” says Trimble, a member. 

Having stakeholders from every corner of UVA on the committee is “really powerful and rather unique in higher education,” agrees Cheryl Gomez (Darden ’09), a co-chair who is UVA’s director of operations.

UVA’s dedication attracted Natalie LaRoe (Arch ’20), a transfer student majoring in urban and environmental planning with a minor in global sustainability. She, too, serves on the committee. The number of student groups, classes and departments that focused on sustainability “really caught my eye,” she says. “I felt like it was really important that my educational institution valued it as much as I did.” 

Academically, sustainability is featured in many departments, such as Environmental Sciences, and has made its way into other disciplines. Because sustainability encompasses the environmental aspect (both natural and built), the social aspect (equity and people), and economic and policy aspects, a robust understanding requires learning in more than one discipline or school, explains Crisman, the other co-chair of the committee. She began teaching a course on global sustainability 10 years ago, which led to a minor and later a unique track within the global studies major. Her students’ topics for their capstone research projects range from water policy in Tanzania to establishing a community food system in Charlottesville, from waste diversion to the politics of consumption. 

“Students are really interested in issues in sustainability; they’re interested in their future,” Crisman says, which creates demand for interdisciplinary courses, majors and minors. 

And because UVA values student leadership, many initiatives have grown from student ideas or projects, such as on-campus composting and greater student involvement in greening University operations. In one instance, LaRoe helped secure $10,000 to launch a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Green Associate training program on Grounds. 

“It’s really important to know that we are pursuing sustainability in a wise way,” says LaRoe, who held a summer internship at the U.S. Green Building Council, which oversees LEED certification. 

For students, the new sustainability goals represent an important step toward innovative student initiatives that will truly make a difference.

Solar panels on Ruffner Hall Dan Addison

What’s Next

While UVA strives to meet its environmental goals, it also continues to grow. Recent projects include a hospital bed expansion of more than 400,000 square feet and the new, six-story Bond House dormitory for more than 300 students. Plans include a hotel and conference center, a data science school, a football operations center, and an Olympic sports center. 

The Board of Visitors requires that all major new building and renovation projects achieve LEED certification—meaning significant energy, resource and cost savings for buildings, plus reduced environmental impact. For instance, Clark Hall’s recent renovation—including LED lighting, low-flow toilets and sink aerators, and an upgraded HVAC system—cut energy costs by two-thirds (a $750,000 annual savings) and will prevent the emission of 5,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year. The retrofitting earned the project Virginia’s first silver rating in the stringent LEED v4 certification for Existing Buildings: Operation and Maintenance. 

UVA also took on the Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Challenge, pledging to reduce building energy-use intensity by 20 percent of 2010 levels by 2020; the University has achieved a 13 percent reduction and is striving to meet the goal by year’s end. 

The Ivy Corridor project will also feature a landscape integrated with stormwater management and diverse plantings that prevent nitrogen runoff, which hurts water quality and aquatic plants and animals. 

And despite tremendous growth, the University has managed to become greener. Even as UVA grew from about 10 million square feet to about 17 million over the two decades spanning 1998 to 2018, total water use has fallen 25 percent, Gomez says. 

Hard work and planning have earned UVA a gold rating from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. UVA completed the self-reporting assessment to become one of 126 universities to earn gold (with five around the world securing platinum). 

Updated infrastructure and grand green-building plans are key to sustainability, says Trimble, but “we still need individuals to care, in their daily behaviors and in their bigger leadership, decision-making actions.” 

That means helping people across Grounds grasp how their everyday decisions matter. Ordering a blended burger (20 percent mushrooms, 80 percent Virginia beef) or a local all-veggie NoBull Burger, choosing a reusable to-go box, recycling and composting, turning off unused lights, or toting a reusable cup or sippy lid—they all help over time. 

Carrie Madren is a freelance writer based in Northern Virginia.