As Virginia Tech continues to be a leader in sustainability – ranking in the top 100 universities globally in the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings the last two years in a row – universitywide efforts to reach carbon neutrality on the university’s Blacksburg campus advance.

On Nov. 6, Mary-Ann Ibeziako, assistant vice president for sustainability and chief sustainability officer; Nam Nguyen, executive director of energy and utilities; and Matt Stolte, director of engineering services, provided updates to the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors' Buildings and Grounds Committee on the university's progress toward achieving its Climate Action Commitment and developing its inaugural utilities master plan

The Virginia Tech Climate Action Commitment and its corresponding implementation plan sets forth goals and action steps for achieving 100 percent carbon neutrality on the Blacksburg campus by 2030 in a manner consistent with Virginia Tech’s strategic plan and campus master plan. Also drawing from these plans is the utilities master plan now being developed. The adaptable visioning document will provide a comprehensive road map to align campuswide utility systems with the goals of the Climate Action Commitment. Together, these provide Virginia Tech with a flexible, sustainable, and scalable road map for the future of an evolving Blacksburg campus.

As highlighted in the Climate Action Commitment, achieving carbon neutrality on the Blacksburg campus requires continued enhancements to the university’s physical infrastructure and  a culture of sustainability built through the academic mission and individual and collective behaviors. A comprehensive description of progress to date is available in the Sustainability Annual Report, which is presented annually to the Buildings and Grounds Committee. 

(From left) Margaret Couvillon, assistant professor in Entomology, Jamie King, university arborist, and Emily Vollmer, sustainability coordinator, install bee boxes as part of Earth Week engagement opportunities. Photo by Meghan Marsh for Virginia Tech.

Sustainability-focused enhancements for physical infrastructure

Over the last year, several enhancements were made to further the sustainability and efficiency of the Blacksburg campus’ physical infrastructure. 

Efforts to transition the Blacksburg campus’ building lighting systems to LEDs to improve energy efficiency continued, with 22 percent of buildings converted. In 2023, buildings that were converted included Henderson Hall, Williams Hall, Sterrett Center, Theatre 101, Surge Space Building, Shanks Hall, Major Williams Hall, Burchard Hall, the Architecture Annex, and others.

Also this year, the turbine at the Virginia Tech Power Plant was rewound to improve its operational efficiency. Looking ahead, the power plant will be entering its fourth heating season using entirely natural gas for operations. This is several years ahead of the 2025 scheduled conversion date to 100 percent natural gas set forth in the Climate Action Commitment.

In 2022 – the most recently available data year – Virginia Tech saw a 60 percent recycle rate and 78 percent waste diversion rate. This was approximately double the recycling rate from 2021. This significant improvement can be partly attributed to a new woodchipping practice implemented by the Division of Campus Planning, Infrastructure, and Facilities that allows downed trees and pruned branches to be converted into mulch for use on the Blacksburg campus.

As part of efforts to strengthen and elevate the energy and utilities efforts as Virginia Tech looks to be an innovative leader in sustainability, Nam Nguyen was promoted to executive director of energy and utilities for the Division of Campus Planning, Infrastructure, and Facilities. Nguyen, a Virginia Tech alumnus who brings over 25 years experience in the electric utility industry, leads the strategic direction of the Virginia Tech Electric Service, the Virginia Tech Power Plant, chilled water plants, energy management, mechanical utilities, and development and execution of the utilities master plan.

Timmy Lucas, grounds operations supervisor, spreads wildflower seeds in April. Photo by Meghan Marsh for Virginia Tech.
Wildflowers bloom in August. Photo by Noah Alderman for Virginia Tech.

Elevating sustainability in the academic mission

Efforts to further integrate and elevate sustainability in the university’s academic mission have continued in 2023.

Student proposals through the Green RFP program and the Honors College have resulted in several new pollinator habitats installed around the Blacksburg campus to increase the number of nesting sites for the insects responsible for the reproduction of at least 85 percent of the world’s flowering plants. The new locations – including roundabouts adjacent to the Drillfield and the stormwater retention pond near the Duck Pond – join those already in place by Hillcrest Hall that helped Virginia Tech achieve its Bee Campus USA certification last year.

The Climate Action Living Lab continues to grow with more than 150 faculty, staff, and students involved. The initiative that focuses on building bridges between academics and operations in a formalized structure to coordinate climate action teaching, research, and outreach piloted several projects in the last year, including a building energy efficiency audit, solar feasibility study at the Catawba Sustainability Center, and review of the university’s maintenance protocols. 

Sustainability-focused research also continues to advance across the university. Throughout the year, College of Architecture, Arts, and Design students explored the use of bamboo as a sustainable building material in Chone, Ecuador. In October, the College of Engineering was awarded $2 million from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to research the use and risks of enhanced aquifer recharge to improve groundwater availability and quality. Also in October, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ 2023 Global Agricultural Productivity  Report was released, detailing methods for improving agricultural output and productivity by optimizing resource utilization and minimizing environmental and economic costs.

To help further integrate Virginia Tech’s sustainability efforts in the academic mission, Mary-Ann Ibeziako was named assistant vice president for sustainability and chief sustainability officer. Jointly reporting to the vice presidents for Campus Planning, Infrastructure, and Facilities and Research and Innovation, Ibeziako leads the strategic direction of the university’s sustainability initiatives and implementation of goals set forth in the Climate Action Commitment. 

Mark Widdowson, department head of the Charles E. Via, Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, stands near recharge wells at the SWIFT Research Center in Suffolk, Virginia, which deliver 1 million gallons of high-quality water to the Potomac Aquifer each day. Photo by Peter Means for Virginia Tech.

Sustainability through individual and collective behaviors 

Across Virginia Tech, efforts have continued to foster a culture of sustainability at the individual and collective levels.

In early 2023, as part of efforts to further integrate missions of the Climate Action Commitment and Transportation Services, Alternative Transportation was rebranded as Sustainable Transportation. Sustainable Transportation provides information on transportation options for getting to and around campus, including carpools, electric vehicles, transit, bicycles, and more. 

To help encourage proper recycling habits on the Blacksburg campus, an automatic waste sorter was introduced at the Squires Student Center as part of a pilot project that began earlier this year. Individuals can throw away both waste and recyclable materials into the bin, while it automatically sorts the materials into waste versus recyclables and notifies individuals which material was which.

Opportunities for student and community involvement in sustainability initiatives were plentiful in 2023. In the spring, over 10,300 native trees and shrubs were planted by volunteers along Stroubles Creek to help restore its riparian zone. Additional tree planting opportunities were held by Jamie King, university arborist, throughout the year. Annual events including the Sustainable Eats Walking Tour, Sustainable Transportation Fair, and Earth Week also provided opportunities for education and engagement.

Overall, in 2022  – the most recently available data year – the university’s greenhouse gas emissions were reduced by approximately 10 percent when compared to the previous year.

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Planning for a sustainable future 

Looking ahead, the planning process for the utilities master plan will be completed in 2024. The plan will help assess the condition and capacity of the university’s utility systems for prioritization of service-level risk. Also next year, two chillers in the North Chiller Plant will be replaced to maximize the plant’s operational efficiency.

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