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University as a Living Lab

At Stanford, we continue to tackle new challenges with innovative and practical solutions to model an environmentally sustainable institution to help our campus, local, and global community understand, mitigate, and adapt to the changing climate.  We partner with an insightful and engaged community of faculty, students, and staff to function as a living laboratory of sustainability in action, modeling best practices in planning and operating a premier research and teaching institution in an efficient and sustainable way.  
Unique Stanford landmarks like the Central Energy Facility (CEF), the Codiga Resource Recovery Center, and the O’Donohue Family Stanford Educational Farm, serve as implementation models and learning centers for thousands of researchers and visitors from all over the world, while also providing educational experiences for our students. We have undertaken ambitious initiatives to advance progress and create a thriving environment. Testament to this vision is our commitment to function on 100% renewable electricity by 2022, reducing our campus greenhouse gas emissions by 80% from peak levels. We are also preparing and aligning for a 90% recycling and diversion coined "Zero Waste Stanford by 2030," using the principles of sustainable materials management.

Key Highlights

Platinum Rating: Stanford’s achievements in sustainability-focused research, teaching, planning, and administration are recognized by regional, national, and international organizations. Stanford submits to the national sustainability rating program managed by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), through which more than 1,000 institutions report. In 2017, Stanford earned the prestigious Platinum rating, which was renewed in 2019. Stanford continually earns commendations in AASHE’s Sustainable Campus Index, which recognizes top performing institutions in 17 impact areas. Most recently ranking First for Doctoral/Research Institutions,  and first in the Diversity & Affordability category. To advance thought leadership, in addition to AASHE, Stanford holds representations in organizations like the Green Sports Alliance, Ivy+ Consortium, California Higher Education Sustainability Consortium, and Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Conference, to name a few.

Carbon-Free Energy Supply in 2022: Stanford has taken progressive, cutting-edge steps in managing its energy supply. Beginning in 2008 with the first edition of its Energy and Climate Plan, Stanford began to work toward aggressively reducing its carbon footprint. In 2011, the Board of Trustees gave concept approval to Stanford Energy System Innovations (SESI) program, which came online in 2015 and transitioned the campus to an electrically powered heating and cooling system that relies on renewable energy, reducing emissions 68% from peak levels. A second solar station comes online in 2022, providing 100% renewable energy and accomplishing the 80% reduction of emissions laid out in Stanford’s Long-Range Vision. SESI has earned extensive recognition, including from the American Institute of Architects, Governor's Environmental and Economic Leadership Awards Program, and Engineering News Record, among others.

Sustainable Water Management: Stanford manages a considerable network of water resources and infrastructure to meet the current needs of campus and plan for future campus growth, while also preserving the environment. The Water Efficiency Program began in 2001 to help expand water conservation and sustainable practices and oversee thousands of water retrofits and projects. Over the past 20 years, conservation projects, retrofits, capital improvements, and behavior changes have reduced potable water use by 48%, or a reduction of 1.3 million gallons on an average day in 2020 compared to 2001. Stanford regularly earns awards through the Silicon Valley Water District. 


Aggressive Energy Demand Management as a Smart Campus: While SESI enables significant reductions in carbon emissions, demand-side management accounts for nearly 10% of the total campus energy savings. Programs like the Whole Building Energy Retrofit Program (2004) and the Integrated Controls and Analytics Program (2016), which allows facilities teams to more adeptly manage utility consumption, have helped to reduce campus energy intensity by 13% from a 2000 baseline. Reducing energy use in existing buildings is one of the primary pillars of Stanford’s Energy and Climate Plan (2008), and a cornerstone to its leadership as a sustainable campus started decades prior. Flexible, customized applications help to maximize savings with greater accessibility and have helped Stanford grow as a leader within the “Smart Campus” space. Notable awards include the US EPA Green Power Challenge and the Commercial Real Estate Digital Innovation Award.

High-Performance Buildings: Since 2007, new construction on campus has adapted to aggressive conservation guidelines from the State of California, Title 24, and industry to meet building performance targets.  Unique to the programs it houses, yet benchmarked against the entire Stanford building system, each new building is targeted to perform better than comparable buildings that were built before it. Now, all of Stanford’s buildings perform at LEED Gold level, in the Existing Buildings Operations and Maintenance category.  In 2016, Stanford developed a rigorous internal building sustainability rating system to identify high performers and target buildings for improvement. The system evaluates a building’s sustainability performance across six categories, measured and analyzed on an annual basis. This provides greater visibility into building performance, beyond simple meter data, to motivate action and inform where additional resources could be invested. 

Emphasis on Alternative Transportation: In 2002, Stanford established the Transportation Demand Management (TDM) program, which has some of the most extensive reduction strategies in the country. In addition to reducing peak hour trips, TDM aims to reduce university-related traffic emissions, congestion, and parking demand. Thanks to the TDM program, Stanford has made strides in consistently meeting its goal of "No Net New Commute Trips," through programs like the Commute Club.  The percentage of Stanford employees and commuting students who drive alone to the main campus has dropped from 67% in 2002 to 41% in 2020, and Stanford has earned a Platinum Bicycle Friendly University status.


Responsible Waste Management: Stanford has one of the longest running university waste diversion programs in the country. Through expansive reuse, recycling, and composting programs, the university has increased its diversion rate to 67%, compared to 39% in 1998.  A partnership with Procurement Services has resulted in updated Responsible Purchasing Guidelines as a resource for the campus community. Stanford’s waste minimization program regularly performs well in the national RecycleMania competion, most recently earning 1st place in the organics category. The recycling program often earns recognition from the California Resource Recovery Association and the National Recycling Coalition.  


Sustainability in Residential Life: Residential & Dining Enterprises houses 15,000 residents and serves 18,000 meals per day across its more than 300 facilities for dining, catering, hospitality, and residences. R&DE collaborates with faculty, students, and staff to foster behavior change, reduce energy, and water consumption and waste production, educate students through teaching academic classes, and integrate long-term sustainable thinking into how it operates.  The Sustainable Living and Sustainable Food programs began in 2008 and help to advance initiatives across its facilities. In 2017 they began to hire sustainability managers for residences, and more recently have focused on reducing food waste. In 2018, they began working with the Silicon Valley Food Rescue to donate excess food from dining halls, cafes, and concessions to local organizations. R&DE has been recognized by APPA for Sustainability Innovation as well as earning REAL Certification for its use of nutrition and sustainability best practices (2015) among others. 

Business Systems: Starting in 2015, Stanford began advanced automation and integration of all its utilities reporting and billing. The Business Systems initiative addresses utilities data integration, resource efficiency, and data analytics to effectively measure and manage Stanford’s resources.  The program has enabled streamlined data presentations for greater insight into utilities consumption to encourage resource-conscious operation. This visibility also helps facilities teams to operate utility infrastructure in the most reliable, safe, and cost-effective way. In 2018, real-time utilities dashboards were published to showcase campus performance, in addition to the building and system level tools that began in 2015. 

Sustainability Culture and Engagement: The Cardinal Green program encourages individual engagement with sustainability. Starting in 2012, the campus community could engage with conservation through a series of seasonal campaigns to reduce resource consumption. In April 2017, a new sustainability engagement portal—My Cardinal Green—launched to campus, providing personalized actions for each individual and incentivizing their performance. Since 2017, more than 5000 users have enrolled, with approximately 2,000 active users reporting more than 8,000 unique conservation behaviors on an annual basis. Cardinal Green campaigns and trainings complement the program so that the community can work together to directly support resource conservation, with more than 1,800 individuals trained across different modules since 2015. Programs targeted at specific high-impact areas like labs, events, and office spaces support progress and encourage engagement, and the program was recognized by the International Sustainable Campus Network, among others.  

Continuing Momentum this Decade

While work in maintaining a diverse and dynamic portfolio continues, the university has an eye on the horizon for deeper impact and action. Investigations include: 

Deeper Decarbonization: In 2019, the university began to explore strategies to increase its emissions reductions further, with plans to phase out natural gas-powered equipment. With carbon from direct emissions 80% reduced, the next steps are to electrify the remaining equipment in buildings, transition additional departments to the campus thermal system, and Lake Water Heat Exchange. The next frontier of decarbonization lies in Scope 3 emissions accounting, program development, and systematic reduction of carbon in several aspects of the institution’s travel footprint and supply chain; an initial inventory is underway.   

Climate Adaptation and Resiliency:  As severe weather events become more frequent and intense, resilience has become an increasingly important issue for all institutions. Through a comprehensive vulnerability assessment to address risks, the institution is preparing to both adapt (respond to the impacts of climate change) and be resilient (prepare and recover from adverse impacts) in coming decades to be in synch with the realities of the changed climate.  

Zero Waste by 2030:  The university is actively progressing on its path toward recycling and diverting more than 90% of material from the landfill by 2030. Stanford initiated a Zero Waste Feasibility Study in 2017, which provided a more detailed understanding of waste streams and informed strategies to further reduce waste generation. In 2019, pilot programs to evaluate these solutions began in Stanford’s Redwood City Campus.

Robust Community Engagement: The efforts of everyone at Stanford – students, faculty and staff – are crucial to creating a more sustainable campus, and ensuring that our community members exist as sustainable citizens in the world at large. My Cardinal Green has established the framework through which to engage our community in a personal way, and the next steps will aim to broaden participation and integration with various university communities.