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SOU's green energy plan seeks 'climate neutrality'

ASHLAND — Southern Oregon University, which earned recognition from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for its use of "green power," will take that effort several steps further as it pushes for a goal of "climate neutrality" by mid-century.

The school will hold a forum at 2 p.m. Thursday — Earth Day — to gather ideas from faculty, staff, students and the public. The meeting will be in the Rogue River Room of Stevenson Union.

SOU was named the top user of green power — electric and natural gas energy paid for by student fees — in the Cascade Collegiate Conference and was expected to finish "mid-pack" among 54 schools competing in the EPA's Green Power Challenge this academic year, said Larry Blake, director of Campus Planning and Sustainability.

The university in 2007 signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, along with 284 other schools, pledging to reach climate neutrality by 2050. That means the campus would have a net-zero carbon footprint, by offsetting its energy uses through such means as renewable energy production, conservation, tree-planting or buying carbon credits.

SOU submitted a draft Climate Action Plan in 2007 and, in the first year, retained a consultant and did a greenhouse gas inventory, tallying all its carbon dioxide emissions, vehicle fleet miles, refrigeration gases, air travel, fertilizer and other sources.

The data were entered in a Clean Air-Cool Planet calculator, said Blake, to give the school a map of the road to climate neutrality.

Thursday's forum will feature a presentation by SOU biology teacher Charles Welden, faculty chairman of the Climate Action Plan Team.

With 40 years to go, Welden said, achievement of the plan depends on energy markets and advances in technology in solar and wind energy, as well as increases in efficiency of all energy forms.

"We're thinking about co-generation, using our steam boilers" to generate electric power, said Welden.

Consultants have estimated SOU could, with an investment of $8.5 million on all fronts — efficiency, infrastructure upgrades, insulation, better windows and lighting — reduce more than 800 tons of carbon over 15 years.

Welden, who will solicit ideas from attendees Thursday, said SOU is incorporating energy sustainability into courses and internships as it works on the plan over the decades.

SOU students in 2007 voted for a student fee of $8 a term for green tags, a step that allowed the school to purchase renewable energy to offset 9,000 tons of its present 13,000 tons of carbon output, said Blake, adding, "a lot will have to happen to get to zero carbon footprint and we're going in incremental steps."

The EPA Green Power Challenge is in its fourth year now, with a final year planned next year. SOU finished in first place in its conference by purchasing 33 million kilowatt-hours of green power, which is 287 percent of its annual electric usage. For the first time this year, it was allowed to offset natural gas usage, as well as electric, thus boosting its rating, said Blake.

Oregon State University this academic year came out first in its conference, the Pac-10.

The EPA's Green Power Partnership has 1,200 organizations buying green power as a way to reduce the environmental impacts of electricity use, according to an SOU news release. The partners include businesses, governments at all levels, trade associations and colleges and universities.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.