PSU tackles plan to become ‘carbon neutral’ university


(news photo)


L.E. BASKOW / Pamplin Media Group

PSU’s urban plaza symbolizes the university’s growth and its commitment to a non-auto-dependent future.

The climate-change conference in Copenhagen was a bust.

Cap-and-trade bills to lower greenhouse gas emissions are stuck in Congress and the Oregon Legislature.

And Americans are more worried about jobs these days and more leery of aggressive actions to avert climate change.

But Portland State University is plowing ahead anyway, adopting its own climate action plan that calls for making the campus “carbon neutral” in 30 years.

PSU is one of 685 American colleges and universities – including 16 in Oregon – that agreed to address global warming by signing the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment. On May 24, PSU took its most significant step to fulfill that commitment, releasing a 69-page plan that charts how it will do its part to address the planet’s most-pressing environmental threat.

“I don’t think there’s another country in the world where you could get this big, this major an effort coming from the grass roots, coming without a government mandate,” says PSU President Wim Wiewel, of the commitments by PSU and its peers.

Portland out ahead

Despite stalled progress at the state, national and international levels, Portland and Multnomah County enacted an ambitious climate action plan in October. They called for slashing countywide carbon emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, and 80 percent by 2050.

Those are audacious goals, but it’s what experts say is needed worldwide to avert the worst impacts of climate change.

PSU’s plan is even more aggressive. It calls for an 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions below current levels by 2030 and getting to carbon neutrality by 2040.

PSU, like the city where it’s based, is staking out a reputation for being ahead of the pack when it comes to sustainability.

“It’s kind of a Portland ethic,” says Mark Gregory, PSU associate vice president in finance and administration. He’ll oversee the nitty-gritty work needed to carry out the climate action plan.

PSU has earned a national reputation in urban studies and engaging with the community, Gregory says. “I think a next big one for us is sustainability, particularly as it relates to urban environments.”

PSU a growing player

That reputation leaped forward in 2008, when PSU received a $25 million challenge grant from the James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation to support sustainability research and teaching. PSU must raise an equal matching amount over 10 years.

The university also is working on two cutting-edge projects of national import. The $90-million plus Oregon Sustainability Center, billed as the world’s greenest large building, will host PSU academics and environmental nonprofits and government groups. PSU also is plotting an “eco district,” a neighborhood built with the latest green transportation, sewage, energy and other features.

PSU’s climate action plan meshes well with student and faculty sensibilities. As the plan notes, PSU students are fascinated by studying the environmental merits of bathroom hand dryers vs. paper towels. About 160 students attended a town hall to review the climate action plan.

PSU faculty and students are researching the urban driving habits of motorists using electric vehicles, and looking for synergies between rooftop solar panels and planted “eco-roofs.”

PSU’s new goal of a “carbon-light future” is even more aggressive considering its expansion plans. With 28,000 students, it’s Oregon’s largest and fastest-growing university, and it expects to add 12,500 more students by 2039. It expects to expand from the current 4.1 million square feet of dorm, classroom and administrative space to 7.1 million square feet.

The biggest challenge to meeting the plan’s goals is money, Gregory says. In years when PSU’s budget is lean, there may be little available to spend.

But the public expects universities to be laboratories for solving problems, he says, and PSU will benefit even if it misses its ambitious targets. “If we fail, then we get most of the way there, and we learned a bunch of things.”

And collectively, the wisdom gained by more than 600 U.S. colleges and universities undergoing similar efforts could inform practices around the globe.

PSU’s path to ‘carbon neutrality’

Portland State University hasn’t detailed what it means to reach “carbon neutrality” or how to get there. But it vows to retool its climate action plan every one to three years.

Some ways it expects to reduce carbon emissions that contribute to global warming:


• Erect more green buildings, on top of five current ones meeting silver or gold Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design or LEED standards.

• Add more dorms so fewer students drive or take transit to school. Long-term goal: house one-fourth of all students on campus.

• Building retrofits to improve energy efficiency.

• Hire a manager to craft energy-saving projects, and install meters pinpointing energy usage each 15 minutes.

• Long term, develop renewable energy, possibly with methane fuel produced from waste. Solar and wind won’t play a major role because of space and other considerations.


• Keep building on past decade, which saw the share of students driving alone to campus plummet from 41 percent to 25 percent, and a greater reduction among employees.

• Keep adding bike racks at current rate of 100 per term; work to prevent bike thefts.

• Improve bike paths, particularly east-west routes that connect campus to city.

• Add electric-vehicle charging station and electric-car fleet.

• Get to 20 percent of all student trips by bike by 2030, up from 11 percent now; and 25 percent of all student trips by foot, up from 14 percent now.


• Reduce use of computer printers. PSU purchased 147 tons of copy paper in 2007-08; if stacked upright, that would almost reach the height of Mount Hood.

• Cut solid waste generated on campus one-fourth by 2030. Eliminate use of plastic water bottles at university events and launch a campaign to reduce trash disposed at athletic events.

• Longer term, explore building a digester, processing solid waste on site into methane gas that’s burned as fuel.


Plane travel is “the trickiest part of the whole puzzle,” says Mark Gregory, associate vice president in finance and administration. Faculty, staff and students flew 9.4 million miles in fiscal year 2007-08 – 17 times the miles driven by car. Air travel accounted for 50 times the carbon emissions of car travel.

• To get to “carbon neutrality” in this arena and other elusive areas, PSU likely will have to spend money for “offsets,” projects that reduce carbon emissions by, for example, producing renewable energy or planting trees.

Oregon colleges signing on to the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment

Oregon University System

Eastern Oregon University*

Oregon Institute of Technology

Oregon State University

Portland State University

Southern Oregon University

University of Oregon

Western Oregon University

Private colleges

Lewis & Clark College

Linfield College

Oregon College of Art and Craft*

University of Portland

Willamette University

Community colleges

Columbia Gorge Community College

Lane Community College

Portland Community College

Rogue Community College

*Failed to meet first deadline and demonstrate actions to meet program goals

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One Response

  1. Hi I was looking to schedule a ride to the airport from Portland State University-Broadway dorm. My flight is at 730 am on friday morning. How much does it cost and what time do you thing would be efficient to leave for the airport?

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