‘We Will Do That. We Know How.’

April 25, 2024

Princeton’s Sustainability Strategy Explained at EHS Event 

Princeton University’s ambitious carbon neutrality goals rely on a three-pronged approach: conservation measures, behavior change and innovative engineering. Each aspect was highlighted by a speaker at Environmental Health and Safety’s April 17 event, “Greening Up the Lab: Spring Festival of Safety and Sustainability,” part of our Sa[Fest] series of research safety events.

Operational Upgrades

The presentation kicked off with a talk by Bill Broadhurst, Director, Campus Energy, who highlighted operational and equipment upgrades in research spaces across campus.

A major component of this has been the switch to LED lighting. With the conversion of Firestone Library this year, Princeton has now attained 99 percent LED use. 

This being an EHS event, Broadhurst pointed out the safety advantage of LED along with the environmental and economic benefits.

“LED lighting lasts a lot longer, so you’re saving thousands of trips up ladders to do maintenance. You’re sending electricians up less often, so there’s less risk,” he said. This in addition to eliminating the mercury and fire risk associated with fluorescent lighting.

Also important are ongoing HVAC upgrades. A digitized computer system automates temperature regulation in older labs, and heat recovery systems mitigate heat energy loss from lab ventilation. 

Broadhurst also touted Facilities’ energy efficient appliance program, which pays the difference between standard and high-efficiency models when equipment needs to be replaced. 

“It does not have to be lab equipment; it can be used anywhere. But lab equipment has the biggest plug-loads,” he noted. 

These and other efforts have allowed Princeton’s carbon footprint to stay flat and even decrease slightly as the University’s square footage has grown from 6.5 million in 1990 to over 9 million today, with another 3 million in the works.

Compared to the trend line before conservation measures were implemented, the University has saved 35,000 metric tons of CO2 output, Broadhurst said. “But now— it’s going to be harder to move the needle any more on the efficiency side.”

This is where the next two speakers came in. 

‘The Power is Ours’: Behavioral Change

John Pickering, behavioral scientist and Andlinger Center fellow, believes in the power of individuals to drive change.

“If we are going to realize our ambition of getting to net zero, we are going to have to modify our behavior,” he said. “What we do as individuals in various capacities across campus matters. That’s the most important thing I can say.”

He’s got the data, too. And it all starts with a big number: laboratories, which make up 13 percent of physical space on campus, use 50 percent of the energy. 

“And 20 percent of that is [from] fume hoods,” Pickering said. Fume hoods, which ventilate work spaces and are essential to research operations, are one of the single biggest energy users on campus. 

They are also a locus of behavioral change around energy efficiency. If they are closed when not in use and put into hibernation/mothballed when not needed for extended periods, the energy savings can be tremendous. 

A program called “The Power Is Ours,” developed by Pickering through his company Evidn in partnership with the Office of Sustainability, EHS and Facilities, explores behavior modification around fume hoods using a combination of monitoring, alerts and visual cues. 

Usage is tracked with software that alerts users when a hood has been left open for an excessive period. With this data, behaviors and savings can be compared, encouraging competition between labs, and CO2 use tracked and explained in terms of equivalent auto emissions. 

On the hood itself, they tried various forms of messaging including words, arrows, dots— but a tiger face sticker applied with the top half on the hood and bottom half on the sash was most effective in encouraging people to keep the apparatus closed.

“The poor tiger being cut in half when this thing was open – people felt uncomfortable!” Pickering said.

Because of the pilot fume hood program, “we now have a mechanism for engaging labs across the University in behavioral change” across a variety of areas—water conservation, recycling, or safety behaviors such as waste management and proper chemical storage. 

"I could be taking about safety here, not sustainability,” he noted. “That correlation is really strong.” 

A Revolution in Campus Energy

For Ted Borer, Director, Energy Plant, Princeton is a microcosm of all human history when it comes to bringing heat and light into our lives. After eons of using various forms of combustion to harness energy—wood, then coal, oil and natural gas—we are now in a position to do so in radically new ways. 

“This is a singular moment in the history of the entire institution — and in a lot of ways, the world — in which we are trying to stop burning stuff but continue with a level of comfort and the ability to do what we are doing on campus,” Borer said.

This is achieved not by converting raw materials to energy, but by moving it from one place to another, storing summer’s heat underground and bringing it back up when it’s needed in the winter. This is the essence of geo-exchange. 

We’ve all seen the equipment on campus as the University digs thousands of bore holes and creates new energy control centers. This, coupled with expanding solar electricity generation (16 megawatts and growing), will power the campus into a new era. 

“We are responsible for 100,000 metric tons of CO2 a year as an institution, and we are committed to getting to carbon neutrality by 2046. We will do that. We know how. We’ve already defined the path,” Borer said.

“At this point, we need to execute on that plan, and it’s going to take us easily a decade, a decade and a half,” he continued. “But not many institutions can say, yeah, we know how to do it – oh, and we’re not doing it by writing somebody else a check and [claiming carbon credits] … We’re actually trying to do it on campus as much as possible, with our own resources, our own assets and changing our behavior.”

Article by Jim Sturdivant

Learn More

Visit the Sa[Fest] Channel on Princeton's MediaCentral to watch the talks in their entirety.