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Arneman’s accounting task – to get UNC into the green

It is not part of his title, but Daniel Arneman sees himself as an accountant, a carbon accountant to be exact, charged with the exhaustive task of creating and maintaining a balance sheet of campus assets and liabilities.

His objective, as the University’s greenhouse gas emissions specialist, is not to help keep the University in the black or keep it out of the red. Rather, it is to compile and measure the plethora of data needed to make the case for why the University must go green and think green in almost everything it does.

Stories continues after photo

Daniel Arneman, Carolina’s greenhouse gas emissions specialist, stands on the roof of Morrison Residence Hall beside solar panels that are helping the University move closer to its pledge to become carbon neutral by mid-century.

On one side of the ledger are the campus carbon emissions – the liabilities racked up day after day, year after year by some 28,000 students and 12,500 faculty and staff members.

On the other side of the ledger is the University’s Climate Action Plan, the most powerful asset at the University’s disposal to reduce and eventually eliminate what Arneman refers to as the “invisible contributors” to global climate change.

Meeting the pledge
The plan is both an extension to and expression of the pledge that the University made in 2006 when Chancellor Emeritus James Moeser signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC). The pledge calls for Carolina to become climate neutral – meaning no net greenhouse gas emissions – by 2050.

The plan allows the University to fulfill the ACUPCC’s pledge to establish an inventory of the University’s greenhouse gas emissions, which covers everything from the power consumed within buildings to the gasoline and diesel burned by its vehicular fleet to the impact of wastewater treatment, solid waste and refrigerant leaks from chillers and air conditioners.

Daily commuter activity by employees and students, as well as airplane travel, is also accounted for, he said.

Arneman said he developed the action plan so it would reveal the story behind the numbers. Each chart and graphic is a chapter in the unfolding story that adds background and context for the challenges that lie ahead.

“The purpose of the plan is to condense a complex data set into something that is bite-sized and manageable for the employees and students on campus to follow,” he said. “I want to make carbon emissions visible so that people can track our progress.”

Focusing on Science
The other great asset already in place is Arneman himself – and the bundle of expertise and passion he brings to the task.

In January 2008, he was recruited by the University’s Energy Services Department to lead the effort to achieve climate neutrality soon after he received his Ph.D. in physiology from Carolina.

Arneman’s leap from physiology to a career in carbon footprint reduction may have begun in graduate school when he studied biomimicry, a field that looks to nature for inspiration in technological innovations.

The Eastgate Building in Zimbabwe, with a design inspired by termite mounds, is a great example of biomimicry, and its vast potential, Arneman said. By borrowing its design from natural structures, the Eastgate Building uses 90 percent less energy than a traditional office building and contains no air-conditioning equipment.

Although biomimicry is not in the University’s immediate playbook, Arneman points to Carolina’s early and ongoing commitment to design new buildings to meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification from the U.S. Green Building Council as evidence of the University’s seriousness about the pledge. Under LEED standards, new University buildings are being designed to use 30 percent less energy than the national standard.

Arneman said he approaches his work more as a scientist than an advocate, which means keeping emotion out of the equation as much as possible.

In the various talks he has given about his work, he sometimes mentions how overwhelmed he felt after seeing Al Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Truth.”

“Gore wanted to cause a transition in the culture and he chose to do it by describing a desperate situation – by making the problem seem as big as it possibly could be,” Arneman said. “But fear, by itself, can be paralyzing.”

Instead, he thinks it is as important to show the step-by-step things people can do on a daily basis as it is to harp on the enormity of the task.

“As Henry Ford said, ‘There are no big problems, there are just a lot of little problems,’” Arneman said.

Exploring Options
Of course, the coal-powered co-generation plant on Cameron Avenue could be considered a big problem for a guy whose job is to steer the University away from carbon emissions.

Since 1890, when the first electrical outlets were placed in Person Hall, Carolina has burned coal to generate power. Today, railroad coal cars still rumble through Carrboro on their way to the University’s coal-powered co-generation plant.

The facility generates and distributes steam to the campus and UNC Hospitals through about 40 miles of steam pipes and 10 miles of chilled water pipes. The plant also generates about one-third of the University’s electricity using three boilers and a 32-megawatt generator.

The good news is that Carolina’s co-generation facility, by capturing steam, is able to produce almost twice as much energy from a pound of coal as a traditional coal-fired generating plant can.

The bad news – in the context of reaching the goal to become carbon neutral – is that it still burns coal and that has to change in the years ahead for the University to meet its goal of reaching carbon neutrality by mid-century.

University experts are looking into viable alternatives and have already explored a host of possible fuel substitutes for coal, from torrefied wood to algae oil. And groundbreaking research conducted on campus will help lead the way to energy solutions not yet imagined.

For instance, the Energy Services Department has begun a project to capture methane gas from the local landfill to serve as a potential source of power for the satellite campus on Carolina North.

And since fall 2007, the University has worked with consultants to explore the feasibility of renewable energy sources – from wind power to plasma gasification of solid waste – at both Carolina North and the original campus.

Arneman advises: “Never assume that what looks green is green. Instead, you should work to understand the process and the system because you will very often be surprised.”

Some students, for instance, have suggested to Arneman that all vehicles in the University fleet be switched to hybrids. That sounds good, he said, but the fleet is only a small portion of the campus carbon footprint, and that money would be better invested elsewhere.

One of the hard numbers from Arneman’s inventory is that 90 percent of the University’s carbon footprint comes from the energy consumed in heating, cooling and powering buildings.

University administrators enacted an energy policy to re-tune the campus heating and air-conditioning systems and control building temperatures, which has reaped tangible savings.

In Arneman’s ledger book, it was also a decision that brought the University one big step in the right direction toward a worthy goal.

To read more about the University’s Climate Action Plan, refer to www.climate.unc.edu/portfolio.

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