Environment & Science

California universities lead the pack in sustainability

Workers install solar panels atop the campus’s Student Center Parking Structure, one of many sustainability-related projects making UCI the nation’s top “Cool School” – again.
Workers install solar panels atop the campus’s Student Center Parking Structure, one of many sustainability-related projects making UCI the nation’s top “Cool School” – again.
Chris Nugent / UCI
Workers install solar panels atop the campus’s Student Center Parking Structure, one of many sustainability-related projects making UCI the nation’s top “Cool School” – again.
Wendell Brase, vice chancellor for administrative & business services, shows off UCI’s ultramodern, $40 million cogeneration plant, which produces much of the campus’s electricity.
Steve Zylius / UCI


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California universities rank among the greenest in the nation, according to an annual list compiled by Sierra Magazine.

The list, released on Tuesday, places four University of California institutions: Irvine, Davis, San Diego and Berkeley within the top 10 spots out of more than 150. The University of California Santa Barbara also placed within the top 20.

Rank School City/Town State
1 University of California, Irvine Irvine CA
2 University of California, Davis Davis CA
3 University of Wisconsin Oshkosh WI
4 Colorado State University Fort Collins CO
5 Oberlin College Oberlin OH
6 University of Connecticut Mansfield CT
7 University of California, San Diego San Diego CA
8 University of Washington Seattle WA
9 Lewis & Clark College Portland OR
10 University of California, Berkeley Berkeley CA
11 University of South Florida Tampa FL
12 Green Mountain College Poultney VT
13 Arizona State University Tempe AZ
14 Middlebury College Middlebury VT
15 University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Chapell Hill NC
16 Dickinson College Carlisle PA
17 College of the Atlantic Bar Harbor ME
18 University of California, Santa Barbara Santa Barbara CA
19 Colby College Waterville ME
20 Portland State University Portland OR

Avital Andrews, lifestyle editor of Sierra Magazine, said the high representation by University of California schools was due largely to system-wide sustainability decisions.

“That’s in large part because the system made an overarching commitment to going carbon neutral by 2025, in addition to a lot of sustainability initiatives that they are working to implement at every one of their campuses. Having this bigger body inspiring each campus to be better seems to be helping them,” Andrews said.

Sierra Magazine, a publication of the Sierra Club, has been compiling the list for nine years. Schools are ranked based on responses to an extensive questionnaire that takes into account sustainability research, campus management practices and endowments received. 

The University of California Irvine has taken the top spot on the list for the second year in a row. The school has been in the top 10 for the past six years, due in part to a large energy conservation system and solar power arrays.

Wendell Brase, administrative vice chancellor at University of California Irvine, said the campus has also been able to double its energy efficiency from 1993 levels.

“I think perhaps UC Irvine’s done more than any university that I know of in showing just how far deep energy efficiency can go in reducing our carbon footprint. We’re less than a year short of proving that it’s possible to reduce energy use per square foot by 50 percent compared to the baseline we started with when we really started focusing on this about two decades ago,” Brase said.

Brase estimated that other schools hoping to replicate his campus’s success could achieve the same progress within seven years.

He said costs to do so would be mitigated by the savings achieved by the increased efficiency.

 “If we weren’t motivated at all to be green or sustainable or environmentally conscious and just did what we’ve done for reasons of saving taxpayer dollars and tuition payer dollars, it would still have made perfect sense to do it all,” Brase said.