Nearly two years after the university's Climate Action Commitment was approved, Virginia Tech has made significant progress toward achieving critical milestones that help accomplish a carbon neutral Blacksburg campus by 2030.

On Monday, Nov. 14, Virginia Tech’s Board of Visitors received that update on universitywide climate action, energy, and sustainability initiatives from Mary-Ann Ibeziako, assistant vice president for infrastructure and chief sustainability officer.

In alignment with Virginia Tech’s strategic plan and campus master plan, the Climate Action Commitment and corresponding implementation plan sets forth goals and action steps for achieving 100 percent carbon neutrality on the university’s Blacksburg campus by 2030.

“As stewards of Virginia Tech’s infrastructure and facilities resources, the Division of Campus Planning, Infrastructure, and Facilities has the unique responsibility and opportunity to partner with students and the university’s academic community - many who are viewed as industry thought leaders - to create one driving force toward positive, sustainable change,” said Chris Kiwus, vice president for campus planning, infrastructure, and facilities. 

Achievements presented to the Board of Visitors - and available in the Sustainability Annual Report - were derived from the following focus areas that, when performed in unison, aid Virginia Tech in becoming a carbon neutral campus: 

  • Achieve 100 percent renewable electricity by 2030.
  • Develop innovative financing mechanisms to achieve Climate Action Commitment goals.
  • Achieve a zero-waste campus by 2030.
  • Reduce building energy consumption.
  • Establish the Climate Action Living Laboratory to enhance educational opportunities.

Achieve 100 percent renewable electricity by 2030

In the last year, Virginia Tech met several critical milestones that help accomplish the pursuit for full power on renewable energy.

In March, Virginia Tech partnered with alumni-founded Sun Tribe and the Virginia Department of Energy to install solar arrays on five Blacksburg campus buildings that will - when complete - produce 2,860 megawatt-hours of electricity per year and reduce campus carbon dioxide emissions by 1,409 tons per year using current emissions factors. The first phase of the project is scheduled to be under construction in the fall of 2023, and the second phase of the project is scheduled for the summer of 2025. 

“This exciting solar project will provide clean and renewable energy to Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus,” said Matt Stolte, director of engineering services. “The rooftop panel arrays are low profile and complementary to the campus’ iconic collegiate gothic architecture maintained and preserved by our Office of University Planning.”

Additionally, the Virginia Tech Power Plant will be entering its third heating season using entirely natural gas for operations. This is several years ahead of the 2025 scheduled conversion date to 100 percent natural gas that is set forth in the Climate Action Commitment.

“Natural gas is the cleanest fossil fuel we can burn, as it emits almost 50 percent less carbon dioxide than coal,” said Todd Robertson, associate director of utilities-power plant. “By switching to operating 100 percent on natural gas, we have reduced our greenhouse gas emissions substantially. Natural gas also has little to no sulfur and makes our plant more efficient to operate from a fuel standpoint.”

These efforts are among many underway that contribute to the university’s goal of a net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 3 percent annually through 2030. In 2021, Virginia Tech experienced a 9 percent decrease in total greenhouse gas emissions compared to 2019 – when similar operating conditions were in effect. 

The creation of a utilities master plan is underway to complement the campus master plan and guide the development and maintenance of university infrastructure to be conducive toward carbon neutrality.

Develop innovative financing mechanisms to achieve Climate Action Commitment goals

To mitigate risk and increase efforts related toward achieving the Climate Action Commitment, the Division of Campus Planning, Infrastructure, and Facilities pursues diverse funding mechanisms and sources. 

In February, the division established Virginia Tech’s inaugural advancement fund for universitywide sustainability efforts including research, student engagement, and Climate Action Commitment implementation. 

“Creating this fund has provided a new opportunity for the university community to contribute to sustainability projects on campus. It's a great way to be a part of Virginia Tech's path toward carbon neutrality,” said Emily Vollmer, sustainability coordinator. “It's been exciting to see the outpouring of support.”

In July, the division partnered with the Honors College to launch a crowdfunding campaign contributing toward the creation and expansion of pollinator habitats, research, and signage following the university’s first Bee Campus USA certification

Additionally, since the program’s inception, nearly 125 student-proposed sustainability projects worth over $1.75 million have or will be developed through the Office of Sustainability’s Green RFP program. Thirteen of these projects, including occupancy sensors in Shanks Hall, additional pollinator gardens, and a rainwater harvesting system at the Hahn Horticulture Garden, will be implemented this academic year.

Looking forward, the Office of Energy Management is exploring new revenue-generating opportunities such as the regional electric power grid’s synchronous reserve program, which leverages campus energy system automation controls to lower power demand. 

Sustainability Coordinator Emily Vollmer posts a pollinator sign in the Honors College lavender garden. Photo by Wesley Tallant for Virginia Tech.

Achieve a zero-waste campus by 2030

In 2021, approximately 1,300 tons of materials, including food waste, paper and cardboard, plastic, and cans were recycled on Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus. Additionally, nearly 80 percent of waste originally destined for the landfill was recycled, reused, donated, or composted.

To further improve the university’s waste diversion and recycling rates, Teresa Sweeney was appointed campus waste and recycling manager. Reduction in Motion and O2/Veteran Compost were contracted to analyze current university waste management practices to provide recommendations for reaching zero waste by 2030.

Virginia Tech’s recycling rate can be tracked in the strategic planning dashboard online

Reduce building energy consumption

Over the summer, the multiyear Chiller Plant Phase II capital construction project — aimed at improving the energy and operational efficiency of facilities across the Blacksburg campus — was completed. Since the project began in 2019, electricity consumption for chilled water generation in fiscal year 2022 fell by 54 percent when compared to the pre-construction five-year average annual consumption, for a cumulative reduction of 20.6 million kilowatt-hours. 

This equates to an energy cost avoidance of approximately $1.9 million. 

On Nov. 1, Virginia Tech was recognized by the Virginia Energy Efficiency Council with a Virginia Energy Efficiency Leadership Award for the Chiller Plant Phase II’s contributions toward energy efficiency advancement. 

“Our team of professionals invested an extraordinary amount of effort to design and construct a well-functioning, efficient, and effective chilled water system,” said Steve Durfee, campus energy manager. “The excitement continues to build as we see excellent operational performance results and, of course, the resulting award by the Virginia Energy Efficiency Council. We are quite pleased with the realized operational cost savings and the reduced environmental impacts.”

Also this year, the Division of Campus Planning, Infrastructure, and Facilities’ Office of Energy Management kicked off the university’s new Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Operations and Maintenance recertification program.

Working with student interns in the Office of Sustainability, the Office of Energy Management is documenting the performance of several of Virginia Tech’s buildings in the areas of energy use, water use, waste stream, transportation impacts, occupant satisfaction, and indoor environmental quality. 

The Blacksburg campuswide lighting audit and conversion to LED lighting to reduce energy consumption and cost also continues. To date, approximately 70 buildings have been surveyed and nearly 60 more will be surveyed by the end the year. Approximately 20 percent of campus buildings have been upgraded to LED lighting by the Office of Energy Management. Over 60 percent of street, parking, and site lighting on the Blacksburg campus have also been converted to LED lighting.

Associate Director of Capital Construction Paul Ely (at left) and Campus Energy Manager Steve Durfee accept a Virginia Energy Efficiency Leadership Award for the Chiller Plant Phase II capital construction project. Photo courtesy of the Virginia Department of Energy.
Chiller Plant Phase II capital construction project. Photo by Sarah Myers for Virginia Tech.

Establish the Climate Action Living Laboratory to enhance educational opportunities

As part of efforts to integrate a culture of sustainability into the Hokie experience, the Climate Action Living Lab was developed to deliver a formalized structure for coordinating climate action teaching, research, and outreach.

After its kickoff in 2021, additional faculty and industry subject-matter experts joined the network, resulting in new opportunities for experiential learning including: 

  • Internships developing and implementing high-impact sustainability projects on the Blacksburg campus.
  • Integration of industry subject-matter experts in course lectures.
  • Sustainability-focused research informing Division of Campus Planning, Infrastructure, and Facilities initiatives.

"The Climate Action Living Lab is one of the most transformative goals in Virginia Tech’s Climate Action Commitment,” said Jack Leff, science, technology, and society Ph.D. candidate working in the Office of Sustainability. “The Climate Action Commitment began with students, and it was students who pushed the university to be as ambitious as it is. The Climate Action Living Lab is one way we are embedding our values into our educational mission. It will let us become a global leader in educational programs and research around the topic of climate action and it will let students, faculty, and staff shape the built environment of campus."

Upcoming sustainability initiatives

On the horizon, the Multi-Modal Transit Facility capital construction project, managed by the Town of Blacksburg in close collaboration with the Division of Campus Planning, Infrastructure, and Facilities’ capital construction team, is slated for completion in 2023. The facility will serve as a central transportation hub for buses and alternative transportation in the North Academic District. 

Universitywide sustainability forums also continue, with opportunities for the Virginia Tech community to share feedback and ideas for further developing green behaviors and planning Earth Week 2023.

A full update on Virginia Tech’s climate action, energy, and sustainability initiatives can be found in the Sustainability Annual Report online.

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