Waterfalls, gorges, and environmental stewardship: how Ithaca College is getting to carbon neutrality through laboratory efficiency

Amidst a paradise of waterfalls, gorges, and the Finger Lakes, Ithaca College is taking steps to preserve its natural surroundings through a commitment to 100% carbon neutrality by 2050. One of the first steps: cut energy use on campus.


One of the most common t-shirts you’ll see come out of Ithaca, New York, is one that reads “Ithaca is GORGES.” And if you’ve ever been to this charming town at the southern tip of Cayuga Lake, you’ll know exactly why this simple slogan says it all: the 150 glacially carved waterfalls in and around Ithaca make it one of the prettiest spots in the Finger Lakes region.

It’s in this setting that the founder of Ithaca College, William Egbert, broke ground to establish the school as the Ithaca Conservatory of Music in 1892 with just eight students. Keeping its strong musical tradition, the College expanded its academics and eventually became an accredited private liberal arts institution—one with a close-up view of gorges.

Gorgeous natural settings are not to be taken for granted, however, and Ithaca College leadership has long recognized that stewardship of the environment was going to be an essential part of the College’s responsibility toward its surroundings. In 2009, the College committed to 100% carbon neutrality by 2050 and a 40-year action plan to work toward that ambitious goal.

Taking steps toward staying gorges

Part of Ithaca College’s commitment to carbon neutrality was achieving a 50% carbon reduction by 2025, a task that was going to require a hard look at energy use on campus.

The school performed a campus-wide building energy study and determined that 18 of its buildings accounted for 84% of the school’s energy use. The two biggest users, the Athletic & Events Center (A&E) and the Center for Natural Sciences (CNS), were identified as the top priority buildings for energy-efficiency investments.

Built in 1993, CNS is a relatively new building. At 125,000 square feet, it is home to the College’s Chemistry, Biology, Physics, and Environmental Studies & Sciences departments. It contains laboratories, classrooms, and a large lobby.

The three-pronged approach for laboratory efficiency

Ithaca College enlisted GreenerU’s help in 2017, when we performed a detailed technical study for CNS with help from a $15,000 NYSERDA incentive. Through that process, GreenerU identified opportunities to capture energy savings while modernizing old systems in need of renewal. In the spirit of open communication, the College’s Director of Energy Management and Sustainability Greg Lischke and GreenerU’s Kailash Viswanathan hosted a “town-hall”-style meeting on campus to announce the upcoming changes.

As with our work at Smith College’s Ford Hall, GreenerU approaches laboratory efficiency using a three-pronged approach: (1) engaging stakeholders, (2) working with a lab safety expert, and (3) optimizing equipment.

Lischke had already begun the process of engaging stakeholders by hosting discussions between facilities, environmental health and safety, and finance staff to assess budgeting, deferred maintenance, and capital planning variables. Together, they determined that there was energy-savings potential in performing equipment upgrades—provided laboratory safety was also carefully accounted for, and that building users recognize their role in maintaining energy savings.

“The big aspect to this is really going to be the end user piece,” said Ernie McClatchie, Director of Facilities Grounds and Maintenance, as reported by The Ithacan. “No matter what mechanical changes you make, if the end user doesn’t adjust the way in which they’re doing things, it’s a lot of money spent that never shows.”

GreenerU then enlisted the help of a laboratory safety firm, Exposure Control Technologies (ECT), which performed a lab ventilation risk assessment and demand ventilation assessment on each laboratory space to determine safe ranges of laboratory ventilation volumes. ECT made a series of recommendations that enabled College personnel, including lab users and building occupants, to rest assured that laboratory efficiency upgrades were appropriately accounting for safety.

The risk assessment then enabled GreenerU to identify appropriate opportunities for lab equipment optimization, including boiler upgrades, LED lighting, heat recovery, exhaust fans, occupancy sensors, and ventilation optimization. This work began in 2018 for nearly the same amount of funding that would have been needed to maintain the systems’ basic functionality.

Taking a bite out of carbon

Energy conservation measures—combined with ongoing communication with campus stakeholders—is helping Ithaca College achieve a number of goals:

  1. Aging equipment’s deferred maintenance has now been addressed, extending the life of the affected systems by several decades.
  2. Total project costs reflect a 7% return on investment—more when factoring in a $70-$100/metric ton cost of carbon.
  3. Building energy use was reduced by 45%.
  4. Roughly 6% of overall campus emissions are reduced with 1,600 metric tons of carbon equivalent eliminated.
  5. Cost savings are approximately $180,000 per year, plus significant maintenance savings.

With future plans to continue tackling energy-savings challenges around campus, Ithaca College is well on its way toward meeting its carbon neutrality goals. Soon the question will be, would “Carbon neutrality is GORGES” work on a t-shirt?

Laboratory efficiency can be one of your campus’s greatest opportunities to reduce carbon emissions and address deferred maintenance. Your school may also be eligible for incentives through NYSERDA or utilities. Contact GreenerU today to find out! Call 781-209-5670 or email info@greeneru.com.

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