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Johns Hopkins University Decarbonization Roadmap Sets Standards for Education Campuses to Follow

Johns Hopkins University Decarbonization Roadmap Sets Standards for Education Campuses to Follow

Insights & Perspectives
The red-brick exterior of the hospital building at Johns Hopkins University

By Mary On, Eduard Cubi, David Righter, and Harriet Lilley

Johns Hopkins University (JHU) was the first research university in the USA, and has set a standard for excellence since being founded in 1876. JHU cemented its place in the global public eye recently during the COVID-19 pandemic through the quality of its data analysis and reporting.

Now JHU has a new challenge: climate change. It believes universities have a responsibility to show leadership here. Our team developed a decarbonization roadmap, as part of our contribution to the university’s larger efforts to promote sustainability, to help JHU realize its ambitious commitments towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions and energy use. 

This roadmap sets out three primary decarbonization goals:

  • Achieving net zero carbon emissions for Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions by 2040

  • Creating a reduction plan for Scope 3 emissions by 2030

  • Accelerating energy and greenhouse gas reduction in existing buildings and infrastructure

These goals will then lead to improved local air quality, reduced energy costs, and improved health and well-being for students and staff. At the same time, this approach will help to attract future students, faculty, and donors, as well as demonstrate leadership as one of Baltimore, Maryland’s leading institutions.

Current Emissions Sources

According to the Johns Hopkins 2022 Greenhouse Gas Inventory, JHU’s largest source of emissions comes from scope 1 and 2 sources. Scope 1 emissions are direct emissions from sources owned or controlled by the university, including all fossil fuel systems in either central plants or individual buildings and the on-campus cogeneration plant, fleet vehicles, fugitive refrigerants, and research lab gases. 

In 2022, Scope 1 emissions totaled 228,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. Scope 2 emissions, which represent indirect emissions from purchased energy, primarily electricity, totaled 118,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. Together, these emissions accounted for more than three-quarters (77%) of the university's total emissions.

Scope 3 emissions, which represent all other indirect emissions across the university's value chain including commuting, air travel, and downstream leased assets, totaled 167,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. However, there are large data gaps in this reporting, so this figure is likely to be inaccurate.

Common Strategies

Increasing building and device efficiency has the dual benefit of reducing emissions while also lowering energy costs. It is one of the most cost-effective ways for universities to work towards their climate action goals.

One of the main strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions is to increase the efficiency of existing buildings and devices on campus. This includes upgrades such as retro commissioning HVAC improvements, lighting retrofits, smart building controls, and more efficient appliances and equipment.

For example, the University of California Berkeley has had great success reducing emissions through efficiency projects. Their Climate Action Plan set a goal to reduce energy use per square foot by 10% by 2020 and they surpassed it, achieving a 25% reduction. Energy efficiency measures taken included LED lighting upgrades, ventilation optimizations, and installing smart meters and building controls.

Similarly, Oxford University is committed to reaching net zero emissions by 2035. A key part of their strategy is reducing emissions from energy consumption in buildings to a minimum through efficiency measures. 

Farewell to Fossil Fuels

Transitioning away from natural gas systems to electric heat pumps and renewable technologies reduces operational emissions while also avoiding risks of methane leaks from natural gas infrastructure. However, you need careful planning and phasing to transition district energy systems and building equipment in a cost-effective manner.

For example, Stanford University recently successfully completed a transition to 100% renewable electricity through on-site solar generation and power purchase agreements. Studies by its researchers showed that rapid transitions to renewable electricity can be achieved at lower costs than business-as-usual fossil fuel dependence. 

District Energy Decarbonization

Many college campuses like JHU rely on district energy systems that provide heating and cooling from a central plant to multiple buildings. JHU's district heating systems are currently powered by natural gas, supplying high temperature heating water or steam which makes it both a major source of emissions and a major opportunity for decarbonization.

We are undertaking a thorough assessment of the costs, technical feasibility, and emissions reduction potential of various district energy decarbonization strategies to help identify the best way for JHU to decarbonize this major source of emissions.

Options for decarbonizing district energy include electrification, renewable thermal energy, thermal storage, and interconnection with outside low carbon sources. Switching to an all-electric system could enable the integration of renewable energy and allow JHU to increase the use of lower-carbon electricity. 

An electric district heating system generally generates medium or low-temperature heating water, as opposed to the high-temperature heating water produced by a gas-fired plant. One challenge with electrifying a district heating system is the conversion of existing building heating systems from a high-temperature to a medium or low-temperature system. This typically involves the replacement of hydronic heating coils and heat exchangers and could be disruptive to the building's operation.

All buildings connected to the district heating system must be converted to a medium or low-temperature system before switching to electric district heating. Thermal storage will allow the storage of cooling or heating when demand is low to displace fossil fuel use during peak demand. 

Emissions Reductions Pathways

Our team modeled five different pathways to reduce campus emissions, ranging from minimal upgrades to maximum decarbonization of buildings and energy systems. The pathways focused on energy efficiency, fuel switching, and the renewables expansion Pathway to Zero:

Each pathway was analyzed for comparative lifecycle costs and emissions reductions to determine the optimal approach. The analysis found that while the most aggressive pathway reduced emissions by 94%, all five pathways lowered emissions 64-94% compared to business as usual while having lower lifecycle costs.

Our recommended pathway would achieve an 87% emissions reduction compared with business as usual. This demonstrated that deep decarbonization aligned with the university's net zero goal is feasible and cost-effective through a combination of efficiency, electrification, and renewables.

Recommended Actions

Our roadmap recommends that the university should prioritize the following steps:

  1. Commit to achieving carbon neutrality by 2040 for Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions. This sends a clear signal that decarbonization is a priority and holds the university accountable.

  2. Expand purchases of renewable electricity. Buying clean power is a fast way to reduce emissions while infrastructure upgrades are planned.

  3. Commission detailed engineering studies of district energy system decarbonization. This provides information needed to transition off fossil fuels.

  4. Implement energy efficiency projects in existing buildings. Improving building efficiency now will ease the transition to full electrification.

  5. Develop a system to track and reduceSscope 3 emissions. Engaging the community is key to addressing emissions beyond operations.

Taking these steps will put the university on a path to deeply decarbonize its campus in line with climate goals.

Universities around the world are setting ambitious goals to achieve net zero carbon emissions and calling on peers to accelerate climate action. As major sources of emissions, campuses have a responsibility to reduce their environmental impact.

To meet these goals, they need to take immediate action on multiple fronts. Efficiency upgrades, renewable energy procurement, infrastructure improvements, and emissions tracking will all play key roles.

By taking bold steps now, JHU can fulfill its duty to society and set an example for other institutions to follow suit. The path to carbon neutrality requires commitment at all levels, but the environmental and economic benefits make it a moral and practical imperative. The time for climate action is now.

Mary On is a Senior Associate in our Vancouver office. Contact her via email or connect with her on LinkedIn.

Eduard Cubi is an Associate Principal in our Vancouver office. Contact him via email, or connect with him on LinkedIn.

David Righter is a Senior Climate Action Planner in our Los Angeles office. Contact him via email, or connect with him on LinkedIn.

Harriet Lilley is an Associate in our Vancouver office. Contact her via email, or connect with her on LinkedIn.

For more news and events, follow us on LinkedIn.

Image credit: Wangkun Jia


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