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EPA recognizes Carnegie Mellon’s green power purchases

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently awarded Carnegie Mellon the 2010 Green Power Leadership Award for the university’s commitment to purchasing green power.

Green power is the term given to electricity produced from a variety of renewable resources, including wind, solar energy, hydropower, biomass, and geothermal power. Anyone can elect to purchase green power instead of power produced in conventional ways from non-renewable resources. Carnegie Mellon currently purchases the equivalent of 75 percent of its power usage in wind power renewable energy certificates (RECs). While they are as intangible as energy, RECs are tradable energy commodities that represent the positive impact that results from the production of green power. The actual electric current flowing through Carnegie Mellon facilities is connected to the power grid, in all likelihood generated from a local nuclear or coal-burning plant, but the RECs purchased fund green power for other areas.

University Engineer Martin Altschul represented the university at the EPA awards ceremony two weeks ago, where he accepted the award on the university’s behalf. “When people talk about a carbon tax or cap and trade … they are monetizing the harm associated with generating electricity in certain ways,” Altschul said. “When people talk about RECs, they are talking about the reverse — saying there is some environmental benefit by not generating electricity in standard ways and doing it in a way that is more renewable.”

According to the award ceremony program, the EPA’s criteria for the award included: “quantity and type of renewable energy purchased, the impact of their green power purchases, the extent to which their actions have helped to establish a precedent that may catalyze similar actions by others, and the extent to which they demonstrated innovative purchasing strategies.” In all, there were 10 award recipients in the Green Power Purchasing category. Among them were BNY Mellon, Intel Corporation, and Carnegie Mellon.

Carnegie Mellon began investing in the wind power industry in 2001, with its initial purchase of 4,778 megawatt hours, equivalent to 5 percent of its annual electricity needs. This groundbreaking purchase by the university helped establish a market for the energy produced by the newly constructed Mill Run Wind Energy Center, located in Fayette County, Pa. In 2007, a student petition with over 1,000 signatures circulated, calling for the university to purchase at least half of its energy from local green power sources. By 2008, Carnegie Mellon was purchasing the equivalent of 29 percent of its energy consumption in local energy RECs.

Altschul cited a “summit of environmental thinkers from around the university” in the fall of 2009, where leaders met to assess the university’s green power purchasing potential. With impetus to increase the university’s renewable energy purchasing percentage, these leaders decided to expand REC purchasing from only local green energy markets to the more competitive national markets.
“Over time we’ve been able to increase our [REC] purchase because the prices have gone down and because we’ve needed to increase that capacity every time we build a LEED certified building,” Altschul said.

While Carnegie Mellon currently purchases 87 million kilowatt-hours of green power annually, the equivalence of 75 percent of its energy consumption, Altschul divulged that the university expects to increase that purchasing capacity to 100 percent of its energy in 2011.

With several environmental student organizations and eight LEED-certified buildings on campus, many people are affected by Carnegie Mellon’s commitment to the environment. In response to these purchases, Veda Vadyar, a sophomore information systems major said, “What they do in purchasing the green energy is honorable, but they could put more effort into the little things as well. It would be nice to have an on-campus initiative to get students more involved with energy conservation.”

Civil engineering senior Jenae Pennie said, “I think it gives a positive impression that CMU cares about the environment. Granted, I do not like that this could increase the tuition that students pay — windmills aren’t cheap. Still, this is an environmentally friendly campus, so overall it’s good.”