Cornell’s Green Campus: Putting Plans into Action

Cornell University’s goal to be carbon neutral by the year 2035 is quite ambitious, and everyone on campus has been working diligently to lower carbon emissions through various projects, programs, and events.

Climate Action Plan

According to Sarah Zemanick, director of the Campus Sustainability Office, since 1990, Cornell University has lowered its gross carbon emissions by 50%, and in 2008, the university began working in earnest to create a Climate Action Plan (CAP) to help meet this goal. The CAP explains more than sixty actions the campus’s ten Focus Teams are assigned. The plan maps out the goals of each Focus Team and allows them a way to track their progress.

The university updates the CAP every five years to ensure that all of the teams are on track to assist in meeting their goals.

Sarah Brylinsky, Cornell’s Sustainability Communications and Integration Manager, adds that renovations of older buildings are done at a minimum of Silver level, and she mentions, “These projects must achieve a minimum 30% energy savings compared to the baseline established by American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air-Conditioning Engineers, the national standard for energy efficient buildings.” Brylinksy also mentioned that the university almost exclusively seeks either gold or platinum ratings for new buildings.

LEED Certification

Having buildings LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified is very important to everyone at Cornell. Matthew Kozlowski, the Green Building Program Manager at Cornell shared, “We have certified twenty projects, four of which were certified LEED Platinum. There are many more in the construction and certification pipeline including our new NYCTech campus Bloomberg Center building which is targeting LEED Platinum as well.”

Klarman Hall, recently certified LEED Platinum, is one of the coolest green buildings updated on campus, according to Brylinsky. She noted of the structure, “A new building was built around a historical building, and the new construction brings beautiful natural light into a space which respects the cultural and historical value of the older façade.

The building has 8100 square feet of green roof installed, light wells to allow daylight to penetrate the office block interior, a radiant floor system in the atrium to provide heat, and chilled beams to provide energy efficient heating and cooling to the offices.” Images of the building show the beauty of the original façade surrounded by glass.

Matthew Kozlowski added that the Nevin Welcome Center at the Cornell Botanical Gardens, recently certified LEED Gold, is one of the most beautiful biophilic spaces created on campus in the past decade. The reason he is drawn to this area of the campus is because the curves and natural materials that are used to make the building cause it to blend into the hillside landscape around it. The building uses wood, stone, and a green roof to mimic the Ithaca area gorge topography. He also noted, “The building automatically switches to natural ventilation during the right conditions and utilizes solar thermal collectors to help supply hot water to heat the radiant floor slab.”

Innovative Heat Sourcing

Jeff Tyson, Cornell’s Media Relations Specialist, noted that one of the most interesting innovations currently being explored is an enhanced geothermal system (EGS) called Earth Source Heat (ESH). Tyson added, “This system would use the internal heat of the earth to warm the campus and a bioenergy system to meet supplemental heating needs during sustained or extreme cold spells.”

Cornell’s reliance on fossil fuels will be remarkably smaller. The current plan is to dig a series of deep wells into the bedrock of the earth and pump water down into one of the wells. Because the heat from the core of the earth will cause the water to boil, the circulation of this heated water through a closed-loop system created by the addition of a second well would bring heat to a campus that has extremely cold weather throughout the year.

In an effort to heat the entire campus without fossil fuels, Cornell will need to dig four to six separate pairs of wells. While this technology is still in the planning phase, the problems that it faces are being worked out by professors, students, and teams of engineers. Sarah Brylinsky added, “Students are our first line innovators—they are interested in and inventing solutions across every area of sustainability and climate change.”

Sustainability Month

April is Sustainability Month and Cornell is trying to make this year’s events interesting and relevant to their causes. Sarah Brylinsky adds, “Cornell is hosting over eighty events for sustainability month, including sustainability management and climate literacy training for staff, a Climate Refuse Panel and Climate Justice Week, over ten art and film exhibits, a panel talk on civil disobedience, and climate change seminar series detailing our commitment to and plans for reaching carbon neutrality.”

They will hold a celebration called Springfest in the Ho Plaza where there is food, music, and learning about environmentalism. This event will be held on Earth Day. Zemanick adds that all students are encouraged to sign up for events and seminars that are offered. Some of the events cover small things that students can do to change the environment, such turning off all lights for an hour or switching to a reusable coffee cup. Efforts are to include all students and give everyone an opportunity to learn.

Taking Action

Zemanick noted that Cornell offers over forty active sustainability-related organizations for students. She explains, “They have the opportunity to explore ideas, lead conversations, and implement solutions across a broad range of topics, including climate justice, food insecurity, interdisciplinary engineering and design, waste management, organic farming, sustainable business, transportation solutions, beekeeping, horticulture, governance, real-time energy management, and more.”

She also says that the campus works to capture people’s attention and imagination when discussing various topics such as their variety of energy solutions. Zemanick shares, “Cornell’s gorge-fueled Hydroelectric Plant, innovative Lake Source Cooling Plant, coal-replacing Combined Heat and Power Plant, productive regional solar farms (providing 7% of our electricity), and our upcoming one-of-a-kind living laboratory project.”

Zemanick adds that these innovative solutions are a point of pride within the Cornell community, offering opportunities for faculty, staff, and students to develop, initiate, and maintain these initiatives on campus.

About the Author
Krista Lazarus Gilliland, Ed.D., is a twelve-year veteran educator in Leeds, AL. She can be reached at