Julia Nagel/Sun Photography Editor

The Cascadilla Community Solar Farm on Feb. 11. Cornell has multiple sustainability initiatives in place to reach carbon neutrality by 2035.

February 20, 2023

Cornell’s Sustainability Plan Makes Progress, But Some Setbacks Still Remain

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Cornell sustainability teams have made technological strides in Cornell’s goal for a carbon neutral campus, but the decades-long struggle for legislative and community agreement continues to pose challenges.

The University’s overarching Climate Action Plan is a comprehensive sustainability program that includes campus-wide carbon neutrality by 2035. Prof. Edwin Cowen, civil and environmental engineering, is a member of the Carbon Neutral Campus Steering Committee, a council responsible for monitoring the projects that comprise the plan.

One component of the plan is the Earth Source Heat project, for which Cowen served as an executive committee member. The project’s aim is to eliminate the use of natural gas by harvesting groundwater, warming it and repeatedly cycling it through campus in order to heat facilities. Additionally, the University hopes that the project can scale and serve as a solution for renewable heating in New York and other cold-climate regions worldwide.

“It is a win for the region and the environment [because] it would reduce our use of fossil fuels, so it lowers our greenhouse gas footprint and potentially lowers the amount of fuel we need,” Cowen said.

This geothermal energy project is the first one in Central New York and the East Coast to power a land area as large as Cornell, which Cowen said will set a precedent for future clean energy harvesting.

Solar farms on Cornell land have the ability to provide more than 20 percent of the electricity on campus. Prof. Max Zhang, mechanical and aerospace engineering, is the faculty director of the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability and conducts research on solar farm designs. Zhang stated that solar power’s implementation in the carbon neutrality goal has been easier in comparison to other universities, in part due to Cornell’s ample suitable land and $1.5 million grant from the Department of Energy to design tools that enable solar farm design.

The University’s sustainability goals accompany the recently-adopted 2019 Ithaca Green New Deal, a set of resolutions aiming to reach citywide carbon neutrality by 2030, five years earlier than the University’s timeline. 

“The town of Ithaca and Tompkins County in general has been very supportive,” said Sarah Carson, director of the campus sustainability office. 

However, with the limited land available in the region, the University has been forced to look outwards for sources of energy. Carson addressed the various effects that emerging climate laws have had on this objective.

“The changing regulatory landscape on the local and state level have been a pro and a con,” Carson said. 

Carson stated that the University had no organized local, state or national program to align with when the carbon neutrality plan was set in 2007. Now that programs have been established, the University has had to retroactively adapt to the rapidly-changing climate legislature.

“The project development timeline is on a year cycle,” Carson said. “When the regulations are changing much more rapidly than that, it makes it a harder project.” 

Cowen, Zhang and Carson all emphasized the substantial influence that public opinion has had on campus sustainability. 

“[Sustainability] was initially a student-driven initiative,” Zhang said. The student organization Kyoto Now! began peaceful protests in April 2001 to pressure the administration to address the University’s carbon footprint. Later that month, an agreement was reached, which set new targets for reducing carbon emissions, initiated the publication of regular progress reports and emphasized the growing importance of developing on-campus sustainability projects.

Cowen served as a public relations advocate for the University’s geothermal project, highlighting the necessity of speaking to Ithaca citizens who may be skeptical of the project or opposed to its mission.

Carson mentioned a plan to integrate outsourced wind power by partnering with wind firms in rural upstate New York. However, Not In My Backyard, a term used to describe citizens opposed to land developments in their region or neighborhood, interfered with the project and led to it being scrapped.

Despite these factors, Carson said that the University is still on track to be carbon neutral by 2035.

“From an energy standpoint, a lot of things hinge on the success of the Earth Source Heat project, which is looking good,” Carson said. “We have a plan.” 

Isabela Wilson ’26 is a Sun contributor. She can be reached at [email protected].