Conference report

Getting to Zero: A Carbon Emissions Conference

Held at Penn State’s University Park Campus

April 11, 2014

Sponsored by The Sustainability Institute, The Rock Ethics Institute, and The Center for Ethics and Religious Affairs

Executive Summary

The “Getting to Zero” conference was held at the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center on April 11, 2014. This half-day gathering brought together a wide array of University staff, students, administration, and faculty, as well as community members. A small organizing committee invited 75 participants already responding to the challenge of climate change. In this report, we present both the urgency of the task of reducing Penn State’s greenhouse gas emissions and also an overall excitement at the possibilities before us. We find that Penn State is uniquely poised to address the challenge of climate change in ways that will resonate with our communities, our Commonwealth, and the world.

Three overarching recommendations emerged from the conference:

  1. The President should immediately create a task force to lead the community through the process of setting an appropriate Getting to Zero goal, with a target date of 2050 at the latest, and to establish a strategy for implementing this goal.
  2. The University administration should immediately communicate its commitment to addressing climate change by agreeing to meet the Getting to Zero goal, as set by the task force, in the university strategic plan.
  3. In the short term, the University administration should identify and address policies that currently limit efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (e.g., required five-year payback periods for energy conservation projects).

Many members of the University community already see climate change as central to their research, teaching, and learning. By organizing workshops that placed students and staff together with faculty and community members, we discovered once again the age-old promise of the university: there seems to be no limit to the creative possibilities that result when youthful enthusiasm meets with wisdom and experience, so long as sufficient resources are present. We look forward to working with the administration and the entire Penn State community in the implementation of the conference recommendations.

Conference overview

The Penn State Getting to Zero conference was held at the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center on April 11, 2014.  This half-day gathering brought together (by invitation only) a wide array of University personnel (staff, students, administration, and faculty), as well as community members, who were already involved with activities that addressed the issue of climate change. Seventy-five participants communicated the urgency of the task that Penn State faces in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and an overall excitement at the possibilities before us. The conference organizers were: Jonathan Brockopp, associate professor of History; Erik Foley, director of strategy and sustainable operations at the Sustainability Institute; Andy Lau, associate professor of Engineering Design; Raymond Najjar, professor of Oceanography; and Sylvia Neely, associate professor emerita of History. The conference was co-sponsored by the Sustainability Institute, the Rock Ethics Institute, and the Center for Ethics and Religious Affairs.

This conference would not have been possible without significant institutional investments in several areas, four of which we regard as particularly important: (1) Penn State University has made sustainability an integral part of its teaching, research, outreach, and operations, most recently combining many of these efforts in a new Sustainability Institute, founded in 2013; (2) Penn State is home to some of the top climate scientists in the nation, several of whom have worked tirelessly to educate the public; (3) these scientists, along with their students, have challenged the University to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and the Office of Physical Plant has responded with significant reductions and clear plans for more; (4) finally, Penn State’s leadership in ethics education drives us to reframe the discussion from a short-term business proposition to a long-term ethical obligation.

In her opening remarks, Denice Wardrop, director of the Sustainability Institute, invited the University to push beyond the 80% reductions that climate scientists say we must achieve, and beyond the zero effective emissions mark set by the organizing committee for this conference.  She suggested we establish Penn State as a restorative community, one that actually removes more carbon from the atmosphere than we burn. This challenge is based on the premise that as an educational institution, we have an obligation to model exemplary practices, to push the boundaries of what is considered possible.

A briefing from Rob Cooper and Steve Maruszewski followed, outlining the remarkable work that the Office of Physical Plant (OPP) has already undertaken to reduce GHG emissions by 17.5% below a 2005 baseline along with their plan to achieve a 35% reduction by 2020 (see Figure 1). The bulk of the reductions thus far has been achieved through energy conservation measures and the purchase of renewable energy credits. Utility plant improvements are expected to play a key role in emissions reductions in the coming years.

Many participants were surprised to learn how much had already been accomplished. At the same time, the meeting expressed strongly the belief that this work needed to be continued with clear commitments by the administration to make energy and GHG reduction a central focus of the University’s strategic goals.

The conference participants then divided into eight workshops to explore specific areas in more depth. Attached to this report is the program for the conference, the summaries prepared by the moderators of each workshop, as well as remarks from the public to the initial draft of this report. Information is also available online at During the plenary session at the end of the conference, moderators described the content of each workshop. These reports and the discussion that followed revealed a wide-ranging consideration of the purpose of the University and many suggestions for ways to reduce energy use.

This report was drafted by the conference organizers on June 1, 2014; it was revised on the basis of public comments on June 24, 2014.

General themes 

Broad consensus emerged at the conference on several general themes.

A goal of getting to zero greenhouse gas emissions should be an important part of the educational mission of the University. Penn State already has a reputation as a center of research on climate change and energy. By making Penn State a living laboratory for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we will provide our students with knowledge and experience that will contribute to their success in their civic, personal, and professional lives, producing future leaders in an area of climate response that one can confidently anticipate becoming of paramount importance world-wide over the coming decades. By getting ahead of the curve, Penn State can establish itself in a preeminent position world-wide. This goal provides many opportunities for innovative teaching and engaged scholarship. Penn State can be a leader in training the next generation of entrepreneurs, economists, artists, marketing experts, journalists, scientists, engineers, lawyers, policy makers, etc. that will be needed to create a sustainable future that realizes Penn State’s mission of “making life better.”

Communication is vital. This conference was an example of the kinds of discussions and interactions that need to take place regularly, bringing together unlikely partners and creating unconventional collaborations. We need to cultivate on-going dialogue as the soil in which new ideas can grow. Regular interaction also helps spread awareness of current activities, resources and accomplishments. For example, neither Penn State nor the surrounding community is sufficiently aware of what is being planned, and has already been accomplished, by operations, researchers, teachers and students to reduce emissions. Even researchers and staff working in this field are sometimes ignorant of major developments that are taking place in other places. One example cited where improved communication could reap large benefits is between the Office of Physical Plant and the Consortium for Building Energy Innovation (CBEI).

Large universities have the intellectual and financial resources and flexibility to initiate and sustain a program of emission reductions. Penn State, in particular, has the potential to be a model for other universities and institutions, thus fulfilling its mission to carry out research and outreach to solve societal problems. Through its many alumni and its contacts in industry, the University has the ability to establish innovative partnerships. Participants especially stressed the value of the research and of the reduction initiatives that are already taking place. But they pointed out several potential obstacles that need to be kept in mind. For example, there is an inherent tension between the need to reduce emissions and the requirements of energy-intensive labs or foreign travel on which the excellence of research may depend.

Penn State should develop a clearly articulated commitment to a program of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It is essential that the Penn State administration make public statements on the need to address the challenges posed by climate change. At the same time, due to community skepticism regarding administration intentions, participants stressed that the University should not be content with conversation and debate. We must go beyond discussion to action. This will require a widespread change of procedures, incentives, and expectations by the administration to make cutting down on greenhouse gases a priority in all areas of the University’s mission.  But achieving these goals will not be possible without broad support from the university community. The conference itself was an indication that such support already exists and can be further cultivated. We need to make Getting to Zero a priority for all members of the Penn State community, not just a job foisted off on the Office of Physical Plant.

Dealing with climate change will require cooperation across a broad spectrum of society to ensure that the changes required do not unfairly disadvantage those least able to adjust. Penn State has the opportunity to help create a resilient community, including the surrounding Centre Region in which our employees and students live. Communication and cooperation between Penn State and the surrounding community is an essential part of the task before us.


The overall assessment of the conference participants was that by making Getting to Zero a central component of the mission of the University, we would transform all aspects of our teaching, research, and service goals so that the university would be better able to fulfill its mandate to improve society, a society that will be faced with innumerable and serious challenges in this new world that climate change is forcing us to confront. Emerging from this overall consensus were three major recommendations:

1. The President should immediately create a task force to lead the community through the process of setting an appropriate Getting to Zero goal, with a target date of 2050 at the latest, and to establish a strategy for implementing this goal. The task force will be asked to look broadly at all aspects of university policies, procedures, and aims to determine how best to carry out the goal. It will be empowered to learn from initiatives being undertaken at other universities, take advantage of the expertise of our faculty and staff, and solicit recommendations from people from all parts of the university. It will consider how our basic functions of teaching, research, and service will be impacted by the challenges of climate change. It should establish specific goals for emissions reduction, develop processes that will help bring about this goal, and put forward strategies to encourage involvement from all members of the university community. The task force should be appointed as soon as possible and be asked to prepare a preliminary report by January 2015.

2. The University administration should immediately communicate its commitment to addressing climate change by agreeing to meet the Getting to Zero goal, as set by the task force, in the university strategic plan. The planning process should make specific measurable emissions reduction targets a priority and revise where necessary its guidelines to reflect the emphasis on reducing emissions.

3. In the short term, the University administration should identify and address policies that currently limit efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The most noteworthy of these limiting policies is the requirement of a five-year payback for projects. Investments to reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions will have positive impacts for much longer than five years and have benefits beyond simple economics. The administration needs to find ways to change such requirements to reduce constraints on OPP’s ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Other suggestions regarding possibilities for cooperation and investment were also explored. But revising the payback period can be done immediately and allow OPP to move forward on projects that are ready for implementation.

In addition to these three major recommendations, many additional recommendations were made. These and others like them should be considered by the task force for inclusion in their final report and plan. Here is a selected list (others may be found in workshop summaries and public comments):

  • Create an internal carbon tax or trading program.  A cooperation between the Smeal College of Business and the Office of Physical Plant could lead to establishing such an exchange. A multi-disciplinary course could be created to explore a “Lion Energy Market,” an internal market simulation for energy consumption. In the first phase students from business, management, psychology, and other disciplines would be engaged to explore the market system design. In the second phase, a succeeding course would develop the system. This Living Lab experiment would prepare students with an understanding of future markets, the mechanics of implementation, and the impediments to it. This pilot would design a system that could be applied throughout the University to create incentives for emissions reductions.
  • Purchase all PSU electricity from renewable sources.
  • Create a highly visible energy project on campuses to serve as a public expression of the University’s commitment to Getting to Zero, such as a large solar array, wind turbines, and fields of biofuel crops.
  • Celebrate and publicize what OPP has already accomplished and incorporate their efforts into the larger University community by creating a University advisory board for OPP that would encourage collaboration on research and teaching between OPP and academic units.
  • Establish an investment fund to support the building of renewable energy projects on Penn State campuses as an alternative to TIAA-CREF.
  • Build student involvement through energy-reduction competitions and incorporate climate change into student classes and research.

Why this matters

The urgency of addressing climate change is too well known to require any further elaboration in this report. We have a moral responsibility to use our resources to address the consequences of anthropogenic climate change, which will bring unprecedented destruction and economic dislocation to the world. But an anecdote from the conference will illustrate how Penn State is particularly well positioned to provide opportunities for our students in this new world if we make a commitment to Getting to Zero. A young woman, a senior, rose to describe her search for employment. She had just returned from an interview with a high-tech firm in California. Her application had immediately caught the attention of the firm because she was graduating from Penn State, which the firm recognized as a leader of solar energy and climate change research. By making Getting to Zero a focus of University life, we will build on that reputation. We will be able to give all our graduates (not just those in certain technical and scientific fields) a background that will make them stand out in the new society that climate change is creating and enable them to contribute to solutions that we so desperately need.


Appendix A  –  Excerpts from workshop summaries

 Includes ideas not incorporated into the conference report. Go to for workshop description and list of participants.

Workshop 1 – Physical Plant Retrofitting 

Rob Andrejewski, moderator

One topic that garnered a lot of discussion was the decision making frame for how projects are chosen. The requirement of a 5-year payback in most cases led to conversations on economic versus environmental or social priorities. The budgetary constraints of the physical plant were a topic throughout the morning. If change is to happen, the way decisions get made needs to change also. Ideas ranged from working with the Capital Plan and the Board of Trustees to finding ways to invest in building projects so that the payback goes to the individual investor, rather than to a fund.

The age of buildings was another concern. Keeping buildings operable and comfortable is what OPP feels it must do. Many buildings could be served by whole-building repairs, but that is not often possible. Also, what is best environmentally can be cost-prohibitive in buildings that have structural issues.

A third key area was the missing opportunity to integrate what is being learned by researchers on campus and at places like the EEB Hub. The news of the research rarely gets to the people working on the buildings, and in cases it does, how to implement the innovations on campus is unclear. There is no easy way to engage or to work in real time on practical solutions to campus problems. Finding better integration with the researchers would make solving this dilemma easier.

 Workshop 2 – Investing in Existing Technologies for Alternative Energy Production

Lisa Brown, moderator

 Need to push for new energy strategies that might not have an immediate payback, but which are integrated into our research and teaching goals.

Start communicating partnerships, so that we can see what is going on behind the scenes at OPP and also what projects students and professors are undertaking.

 Workshop 3 – Promoting Emerging Technologies for Alternative Energy & Carbon Sequestration

Kelsey Yates, moderator

We discussed high tech equipment, changing the EHS codes, and other practices that can be potentially implemented to reach this goal. Additional initiatives that were discussed include sustainable building design to get ready for future technology like having North/ South facing roofs, and passive solar, using Penn State’s status as a not for profit to make long term investments, and using state land for biomass projects. The university just received a large grant to conduct research on biomass for fuel and electricity generation. This includes partnering with a PSU grad’s new company, which is making high quality bio-jet fuel and partnering with Delta, which is planning on opening the first major biodiesel refinery in Philly.

 Workshop 4 – Assessing and Changing Carbon-Intensive Practices and Cultures

Robyn Engel, moderator

In terms of an overall scheme, increased quality communication is vital for change.  This communication should occur between members of the university and members of the community, and also within the university administration with relation to faculty and staff.  Increased communication, in partnership with collaboration, will enable achievement.  The specific goals at hand are to localize business and increase the symbiotic relationship with the University, as well as to embrace the view of Penn State as a “living laboratory” in both thought and practice.  Paired with a faculty incentive or reward structure for carbon-sensitive research and practice, change could occur.  On a student level, a PR campaign to make the invisible visible and to make sustainability “trendy” will aid change and enthusiasm on a massive scale.  Students on the whole are optimistic, and to feed that optimism with empowerment and knowledge is vital.

Workshop 5 – Market Mechanisms for Encouraging GHG Reductions

Lydia Vandenbergh, moderator

We focused on internal market forces and suggest three projects which all have the dual advantages of potential energy savings for the University and engaged scholarship/skills enhancements for students.

The first initiative would be an exploration of incentive structures to induce behavior changes, specifically how colleges and departments could make their own energy use decisions and if savings are produced, be awarded with the resulting funds.  This budgeting approach would be explored by selecting one college to run a two-year simulation of the process, allowing the administration and the college to understand how this incentive impacts long and short-term decision making and the challenges of this type of budgeting system. OPP would first need to determine which colleges would be suitable for this experiment based on space utilization, metering, the percentage of occupant control over utility bill, and other variables. Discussions with the colleges would lead to a selection and determination of how classes and the building occupants could be involved in the project.

The second suggestion is to create a multi-disciplinary course to explore a “Lion Energy Market,” an internal market simulation for energy consumption. The group suggests two phases: students from business, management, psychology, etc. would be engaged from the beginning to explore the market system design and then another course would develop the system. This Living Lab experiment would prepare students with an understanding of future markets, the mechanics and implementation impediments, and would align with the education task force priority on engaged scholarship. It would have the added bonus of offering a tool to aid our micro and macro energy decisions.

These two approaches could also help formulate the goals and characteristics for our third initiative: a competition for all students to create a sustainability app that would engage students in sustainability actions.

 Workshop 6 – Interfacing with Local and Regional Initiatives 

Mitch Robinson, moderator


– Look to eliminate mass private transportation for Penn State commuters.

-Work with affordable housing initiatives to put more faculty and staff within walking distance.

Heat & Energy:

– Expand some heat and thermal initiatives into the borough with new projects

– Use The Metropolitan as an expansion for the west power plant

– Work with local building owners on student rentals energy credit programs

– Begin stronger collaborations through clear projects, like the Georgetown University Prize

Urban Sprawl:

– Develop affordable housing for Penn State staff

– Encourage the borough to build up, not out

– Look at Boulder, CO as a case study

– Work towards student housing condensation to free properties for families

Workshop 7 – Coordination, Planning, Communicating with Partners and Administration

Cricket Hunter, moderator

Stakeholder groups must “own” goals in which they can act meaningfully. Metric- and goal setting should be iterative processes, generated from all levels of the institution, with goals at each level informing goals at each other level.

Metrics for sub-goals should be focused on areas that are meaningful to different stakeholders and can help each recognize the strengths and potential contributions of all.

Workshop 8 – What does the failure to confront climate change tell us about ourselves?

Chris Uhl, moderator

The question that brought us all together for this conference was, “How can PSU become climate neutral by 2050?” The first seven workshops were aimed at developing complimentary strategies for addressing this unifying question. In the 8th workshop, however, we considered that climate change is happening because of larger, often unacknowledged, factors and until these factors are identified and addressed, humanity will continue to be imperiled (if not by climate change but the next thing…).

Some other ideas that surfaced during our work together were:


The possibility of turning Old Main Lawn into a huge food garden was discussed, highlighting how we might reimagine the space available to us to cultivate community, and connection with our food and ourselves.


In this vein, Sue wondered what it would be like if everyone (at PSU?) had a partner somewhere else on Earth with each member of the pair holding the other accountable for Earth-friendly behavior.

Participants also discussed the importance of co-creating public spaces that engender community. An example was Peter’s idea of rebuilding our campus into an array of welcoming social spaces, with the intent of removing a car-centric atmosphere.


Gaby Winquest brought up the idea of a January-mester focusing on varying approaches to exploring the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr, including an exploration of ethics from eastern and western traditions, a mindfulness/embodied approach to ethical action, methods for developing compassion for self and others, and the importance of “being the peace we seek,” as Gandhi so famously stated.

This would involve faculty from various disciplines, university-wide readings, practices of mindfulness and self-awareness, etc.  Every year might have a slightly different theme; for example, nonviolence and economic justice, nonviolence and climate change, etc.

Appendix B: comments

Comments on our report were received from Vin Crespi, Jon Eich, Terry Harrison, Chris House, Mark Huncik, David Jones, Paul Moser, Dan Tomaso, and Jennifer Wagner-Lawlor. Here are a few selected comments that could not be incorporated into our final draft:

“There’s an opportunity to add a couple floors to the West Campus CHP administration building and dedicate them to a living lab of efficient energy.  This could be a place where scientists, engineers, historians, writers, etc. would educate from all perspectives on the need to address climate change.  This location would provide a physical image of how it is done today.  And provide real-time data showing campus consumption and production of electricity, heat and cooling from all sources for everyone to see.  Perhaps this could go a long way towards communicating and educating everyone on the challenges that lie before us.”

Best Regards,

Paul E. Moser

“The right political groundwork could raise the profile of the initiative nation-wide and increase its effectiveness state-wide. Among other things, prior outreach to religious/evangelical communities that value stewardship of God’s creation could be very important to expanding the political base and avoiding some of the tribal character that has grown up around climate change in the past decade. This is especially important as regards the PA legislature. An eventual joint announcement of the initiative that includes players from across the political, social, and religious spectra would be ideal. Penn State could be uniquely positioned to make this work, since we have a strong history and credibility in fossil fuels plus positioning in an archetypal purple state that has strong representation across the entire cultural spectrum – we could play the role of Nixon going to China. There are very disparate communities that need to be bridged to bring the full strength of Penn State and the nation to bear; I see us as potentially a keystone national force here, with a decadal-scale positive impact on our stature and influence.

“On a smaller note, coupling to Thon (i.e. emissions reductions at the dorm/unit level yield an automatic donation to Thon) could help activate undergraduates across a broad spectrum of interests.

“I think we should also highlight opportunities to pursue very large philanthropic contributions in furtherance of this effort – it would be nice to be able to announce an 8 or low 9 figure donation/endowment in furtherance of these goals at the moment of the public launch. There are people who might be willing to do that, if the correct contacts and convincing could be achieved. They need not be Penn State grads, but the messaging and commitment conveyed to them needs to be compelling, and we may need to be flexible in the philanthropic mechanisms surrounding the donation – these sorts of folks like innovation in the alignment of incentives.”


Vin Crespi

“I’d like to commend the University on its new emphasis on retrofitting existing buildings to reduce energy consumption.  These types of system and envelope upgrades can have immediate and substantial impacts on building energy use. Kudos for this success.

“The only other thought I have is a highly visible investment in alternative energy production on campus [such as using] the roof of the Jordan Center to collect solar energy.  No other building on campus has a roof that covers 4 acres.

“Finally, if there are future get-to-gethers on this subject that involve members of the community, I would be interested in participating.”

Jon Eich

“Several more very tangible things that could be done at University Park: (1) converting the spray fields to switch grass production to be used for bio-methane production (as a next step for campus steam generation), (2) using co-generation on campus for cooling in the summer in addition to heating in the winter, (3) providing some co-generation heating for buildings downtown, (4) using geothermal to raise the temperature of make-up water added to the steam loop, (5) consider placing the new PSU high-end computing facility in Iceland, where there is free natural cooling and cheap, ample carbon-free energy, (6) a graduated parking rate based on the fuel-efficiency of cars (excluding car pools).”


Chris House (Geosciences)

“The University’s future energy needs and generation sources must be balanced to meet the desired goals.  As a point of discussion, there continues to be talk of another natural gas-fired combined heat-and-power (CHP) unit at the University thus leading to increased GHG emissions in the community.”

“I believe the conference provided a good venue for varied opinions and hope that more community-wide involvement will be encouraged at future meetings.”


Mark D. Huncik

Environmental Consultant, Penn State Graduate, and State College Borough Resident

“I’d like us to consider a top objective for each constituency, with the goal of ‘getting to zero’

“Faculty — What about a faculty competition — or, to put it more gently — a faculty “fellowship” to develop course work in the general humanities fields to complement the sciences?

“Students — What about a plastic bottle count at the fall 2014 football games?  I would love to know how many are in the trash at the end of each game — just documenting the waste would be a great project for a team of students. “Follow the Trash”?

“Dining Services — what about a commitment to local foods only?!–start with one dorm?  With Cafe Laura? What a way to support local farmers!”


Jennifer Wagner-Lawlor



Figure 1. Penn State University actual (2005-2011) and proposed (2012-2020) emissions and emissions reductions in megatons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year. Solid blue line is actual emissions. Colors reflect activities that reduce emissions below the no-mitigation scenario, which is the highest line on the graph. From

2 thoughts on “Conference report”

  1. First, I want to say that the group has done a very nice job putting this all together. It is a great synthesis of what needs to happen and why.

    Second, I think the group should consider listing a several more very tangible things that could be done at University Park that would be considered leading green energy approaches even if they cost a bit more than other dirtier options. These include: (1) converting the spray fields to switch grass production to be used for bio-methane production (as a next step for campus steam generation), (2) using co-generation on campus for cooling in the summer in addition to heating in the winter, (3) providing some co-generation heating for building downtown, and (4) using geothermal to raise the temperature of make-up water added to the steam loop.

    Third, I would like to suggest that Penn State consider placing its new PSU high-end computing facility in Iceland, where there is free natural cooling and cheap, ample carbon-free energy. This may come with some inconvenience in terms of access to the hardware, but the carbon cost of running the calculations here in PA is very high.

    Fourth, I would suggest a graduate parking rate based on the fuel-efficiency of cars (excluding car pools).

    Finally, I think that there are some much bolder options that the university should at least consider and evaluate, given that we have unique resources. For example, we should consider expanding Penn State Breazeale reactor to produce some or all of the steam for the campus. Perhaps, this could be done without a full-electricity producing reactor, but rather through the active storage of a couple of spent fuel rods.


    Chris House (Geosciences)

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