Featuring photography by Douglas Levere

Leading the Charge: The University at Buffalo’s Path to Carbon Neutrality 

The University at Buffalo (UB) is on a transformational path toward carbon neutrality, aiming to significantly reduce its carbon footprint through various climate action initiatives. These efforts range from converting buildings to renewable energy sources to transitioning almost half its campus bus fleet to electric vehicles. UB’s approach underscores the university’s mix of idealism and pragmatism, driven by a dedicated campus community.

UB’s climate action is supported by collaborations with organizations like Second Nature, which awarded UB a Catalyst Grant for advancing climate justice and decarbonization, and Brailsford and Dunlavey, offering pro bono consulting services. These partnerships help UB link emission reductions with financial resources and delivery dates, positioning the university as a leader in the fight against the climate crisis. UB’s comprehensive and collaborative efforts, blending external expertise with campus community efforts, serves as a model for other higher education institutions.

One of UB’s recent milestones includes completing its first set of low-carbon building renovations. These buildings now utilize renewable energy for heating, cooling, and power, demonstrating UB’s commitment to reducing its carbon footprint. Other projects, such as on- and off-campus solar installations and purchasing renewable energy certificates, further this transition. Ryan McPherson, UB’s Chief Sustainability Officer, stresses the importance of celebrating these achievements to maintain momentum and engage the campus community in shared climate action goals.

UB’s sustainability journey has been evolving since the 1970s, with significant progress in energy efficiency and establishing its first greenhouse gas footprint in the early 2000s. A significant leap occurred with developing a comprehensive Climate Action Plan around 2008. Under President Tripathi’s leadership, UB expanded its sustainability efforts to include research and education alongside operational changes. This holistic approach led to the 2020 launch of a refreshed Climate Action Plan, introducing ten ideas to be advanced by ten university leaders over ten years, aiming for carbon neutrality. Despite challenges, UB has persevered, transitioning to electric buses and implementing a campus-wide waste audit.

Central to UB’s decarbonization strategy is the South Campus Clean Energy Master Plan, which aims to replace natural gas-based heating systems with sustainable electric alternatives like heat pumps and geothermal wells. This plan, developed with Wendel Companies and funded by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), is crucial for reducing UB’s carbon footprint, as natural gas is a significant emission source. The master plan provides a framework for decarbonization, with a companion plan also advancing the North Campus.

Transitioning to electric heating systems presents challenges, including the complexity and regulatory constraints within a public university setting. Stringent procurement regulations and slower operational processes can delay projects and increase costs. Additionally, expertise in renewable energy and navigating funding mechanisms like the Inflation Reduction Act are needed. However, these challenges bring growth and collaboration opportunities. UB’s partnership with Wendel Companies and funding from NYSERDA are instrumental in advancing these initiatives. The shift to electric systems, especially heat pumps, promises long-term benefits, including significant greenhouse gas emissions and operational cost reductions. Balancing continuous campus operations with comprehensive infrastructure upgrades is essential to ensure uninterrupted education and research activities.

UB is also implementing innovative on-site solar energy projects as part of its “10 in 10” climate action plan. This initiative includes five new ground-mounted solar arrays and four rooftop installations on the North Campus, generating 12.7 million kWh annually—enough to power over 1,750 homes. This project positions UB as one of the nation’s leading on-campus renewable energy producers and integrates clean energy into the campus environment, providing a living laboratory for students. This comprehensive approach addresses the causes and effects of climate change while fostering a resilient and equitable future.

Collaborations with the surrounding community and beyond further support UB’s climate neutrality efforts. Recent awards, like the Second Nature Catalyst Grant and Pro Bono Consulting from Brailsford and Dunlavey, highlight the importance of these partnerships. McPherson notes that while UB has focused on on-site renewable energy projects, their work began with a broader coalition, including the city of Buffalo, Erie County, and Erie County Community College. This regional collaboration is vital for achieving sustainable and equitable outcomes.

UB stands as a beacon of hope and leadership in the fight against the climate crisis, with groundbreaking initiatives and a steadfast commitment to sustainability and climate justice. McPherson emphasizes that “our climate justice efforts involve collaborating with the broader Buffalo community and local institutions to advance regional, equitable climate action that reduces barriers to things like renewable energy access to disadvantaged communities.” UB’s climate justice work acknowledges that achieving climate neutrality requires cooperative efforts beyond the university, providing a platform for marginalized voices within the region. It addresses its carbon footprint by pioneering renewable energy projects and deep community collaboration, leading the region toward a sustainable future. McPherson highlights the collective effort required for meaningful change, supported by passionate students, faculty, and external partners. This perseverance ensures that sustainability becomes integral to university life. As UB refines its Climate Action Plan, it sets a powerful example for others, envisioning and actively building a greener, more sustainable future for communities far beyond its borders.