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October 2010

Reducing the Tar Heels’ carbon footprint

At Carolina, we're proud of the tar on our heels. But the carbon on our footprint is not something to brag about.

Because of the dedication of Tar Heels all across campus, I'm pleased to say that we are making great strides toward reducing that carbon footprint. Earlier this month, our latest greenhouse gas inventory showed that UNC had reduced its greenhouse gas emissions for the first time, by 20 percent, taking us back to 2003 levels. That's a big step toward our commitment to carbon neutrality by 2050.

Just last week, representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency came from Washington to Chapel Hill to congratulate UNC on being the winner of its first-ever National Building Competition, a contest to see which buildings could cut energy use the most. We reduced energy consumption at Morrison Residence Hall by 36 percent, beating out such big-name competitors as Sears and JC Penney -- and our neighbors at N.C. State University. The award garnered national media coverage for our community and brought attention to our commitment to sustainability.

But the remarkable performance of Morrison was just part of the story. Our Energy Conservation Measure project, which included Morrison, resulted in a reduction of nearly $4 million in utility costs in the past fiscal year.

Carolina also has been reducing its carbon footprint on the energy supply side. With our pledge to end coal use on campus by May 2020, we have begun to test coal alternatives at our cogeneration facility. We had a successful initial test of wood pellets in September, plan to continue wood pellet testing in November, and plan to test torrefied wood in the spring.

We will take another exciting step forward Nov. 16 with the celebration of the beginning of construction for the landfill methane gas project with Orange County. In that project, the methane gas from the Orange County landfill that is currently being released into the atmosphere (and contributing to global warming) will be captured and converted into electrical energy. At first, the methane will be destructed by flaring. Next UNC will use the energy to power its complex of buildings along Airport Drive, with the potential for it to be an energy source for the first buildings constructed at Carolina North.

The reduction of our carbon footprint has been a team effort. Some initiatives started at the administrative level, like the comprehensive energy policy I announced in 2009 and this year's creation of the Energy Task Force to further advise us.

In partnership with the towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro, UNC has made a commitment to reduce the effects of greenhouse gas emissions by funding fare-free transit. Students showed their support for the switch to fare-free, too, by passing a referendum to increase their own fees to help pay for the change.

Our Energy Management office took the lead in the Energy Conservation Measure project, saving the university energy and millions of dollars while operating on a relative shoestring. Energy Services has been creatively exploring alternative energy sources while using traditional sources as cleanly as possible.

But you can't reduce the carbon footprint of an institution this size just from the top down. Each individual Tar Heel's carbon footprint adds up to the big Tar Heel footprint. Our Sustainability Office illustrates that idea with cutouts of feet that vary in size according to a person's behavior. The driver of a gas-guzzling SUV has a bigger footprint than someone who bikes or takes the bus to work or school, for example.

So we never could have made the progress we've made so far without individuals who made the right choices: To turn off lights and computers at the end of the day, to meet by conference call instead of flying across the country, to dry laundry with a buddy.

When Carolina leaves its mark on the future, we want it to be in tar, not carbon.



Holden Thorp is chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Readers can contact him at

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