When Harvard set its greenhouse gas reduction goal in 2008 the projection analysis showed that even with aggressive reductions from energy supply and demand, off-campus emissions mitigation options would likely be needed to complete the goal, driven by planned growth in square footage.

A Complementary Mechanisms Advisory Group was convened in Spring 2015 to evaluate the pros and cons of specific off-campus greenhouse gas emissions reduction options and make recommendations on how to best use these as a short-term strategy for meeting the 2006–2016 goal.

Harvard was an early leader in investing in renewable energy and off-site emissions reduction through the long-term PPA it signed in 2009 for 12MW of power + RECs from the Stetson II wind project in Maine. The University is required by legislation to purchase RECs annually from existing renewable projects to meet compliance standards, but made the leadership decision to invest in bringing online a new wind farm in Maine via a long-term contract for the energy and the RECs, which is above and beyond what is required by legislation. The University was also one of the first organizations to engage in a voluntary large scale Power Purchase Agreement (PPA), now a common model for corporate renewable energy buyers.  

Key Findings from Harvard’s Analysis

The Advisory Group’s findings and recommendations provided a guiding framework for how Harvard could identify and invest in meaningful off-campus emissions reduction projects to complement its on-campus progress in 2016, while also reinforcing its core research and teaching mission.

The group found that:

  • Voluntary markets present several challenges due to their volatility, changing GHG accounting protocols, and evolving maturity.
  • There is not high confidence in all existing off-site renewable energy or carbon offset markets, there can be high confidence in carbon offsets and REC/renewable energy purchases only if they are carefully selected.
  • The University could leverage the intellectual capacity of the University’s faculty and students to study and pilot these options.
  • The University should carefully select a mix of short term options to meet the goal in 2016, and should continue to study the options as part of the longer term climate goal planning post-2016.
  • The strategy should involve a phased, portfolio approach that will provide Harvard with the flexibility to evolve without tying the University to a single technology or approach.

The primary takeaways were that Harvard should in the short term use a mix of off-campus options to meet its initial 2016 goal; that Harvard can play an important role in studying and analyzing these markets moving forward; and that the technology, policy, costs, and regulatory environments will continue to evolve and change in the coming years and that Harvard should make choices that allow us the flexibly to advance new technologies and practices that optimally reduce GHG emissions and continue to participate in these markets going forward.   

Partnering with researchers and the region to better understand off-site options

As part of its exploration of off-site emissions reduction options, the University has also fully funded a three-year interactive, multi-disciplinary Climate Solutions Living Lab course and research project led by Clinical Professor and Director of Harvard Law School’s Emmett Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, Wendy Jacobs. The course, which is launching in Spring 2017, will focus on studying and designing practical solutions for reducing greenhouse gas emissions at Harvard, in neighboring communities, elsewhere in the United States, and abroad. Students and faculty from seven Harvard schools representing policy, health, engineering, law, business, and climate science will participate in this course.  

During the course, one task students will work on is to assess, analyze and develop tools for choosing off-site emissions reduction projects as a means to achieving long-term climate neutrality commitments made by businesses and organizations. Research findings will be used to inform the University’s approach to coupling off-campus emissions reduction opportunities with on-campus efforts in order to meet its long-term climate commitments.

Read more about the course

Harvard has also advanced research and discussion on these issues through its role as Chair and Member of the Green Ribbon Commission Higher Education Working Group. The Harvard Complementary Mechanisms Advisory Group work identified that there was a lack of transparency and consistency in how people talk about and report on their renewable purchases, which made it hard to understand and compare the impacts across different types of purchases. In response to these findings, the Higher Education Working Group initiated a project to research and analyze the different types of renewable procurement options available from the perspective of renewable energy capacity, greenhouse gas emissions, and financial impact. Additionally, the report clarifies the associated GHG emissions reduction and renewable energy usage claims that purchasers can make. Coming out of this process, Harvard is committed to heightened transparency around current and future renewable energy purchases.

Read the full report

Harvard’s use of off-site emissions reduction options

Harvard seeks to strike a balance between leading by example with smart, meaningful action and respecting its primary mission to confront global challenges through its research and teaching activities. Therefore, actions taken by the University strive to be sensitive to both priorities by making smart investments that will also enrich Harvard’s research and teaching activities.

The Office for Sustainability, Financial Administration, Environmental Health & Safety, and Energy & Utilities, identified a mix of short-term offsets and renewable energy projects that met criteria defined by the faculty Advisory Group and that could be used as an interim measure to complement on-campus emissions reductions already achieved in order to meet the 2006–2016 climate target. These include local renewable and alternative energy, compliance RECs, and carefully selected carbon offset projects for which the University had high confidence in the credibility (for example, nitrous oxide destruction).

Ultimately, Harvard retired Class I RECs from the Stetson II wind project over and above regulatory requirements and purchased existing hydro power certificates in Massachusetts. In total these options represented approximately 6% of the University’s 30% achieved reduction. In the end Harvard purchased a less diverse mix than anticipated due to better-than-anticipated on campus reductions.

Going forward, Harvard will continue to study and evaluate these and other innovative off-site emissions reduction projects (including those that require long-term contracts) to prepare for creation of short- and long-term climate commitments beyond 2016 that will be announced in Spring 2017.