Zero Emission Electricity


This document outlines a short-, mid-, and long-term strategy for Columbia University to secure zero emission electricity to ensure the University can achieve the science-based targets (SBT) outlined in Plan 2030. In adherence with the plan, a core working group was formed to curate the strategy outlined below to procure 100% Zero Emission Electricity. The group’s aim is to inform a cohesive and integrated approach to electricity supply strategies, where electricity, fuel, and infrastructure strategies combine in alignment with Columbia’s commitment to Climate Leadership.


  • Jessica Prata: Assistant Vice President, Environmental Stewardship
  • Allie Schwartz: Assistant Director, Planning & Outreach, Environmental Stewardship
  • Adam Courtney: Senior Engineer, Facilities
  • Indrajeet Viswanathan: Director of Energy Management and Sustainability, CUIMC
  • Dominic Chirico: Director of Engineering, Facilities
  • Tak Eng: Engineering, Facilities
  • Peter Michaelides: Finance and Administration, Facilities
  • Angela LoPiccolo: Facilities Engineer, LDEO

Faculty Representatives

  • Michael Gerrard: Andrew Sabin Professor of Professional Practice in the Faculty of Law; Director, Sabin Center for Climate Change Law
  • Melissa Lott: Senior Research Scholar in the Faculty of International and Public Affairs
  • Bruce Usher: Professor of Professional Practice in the Faculty of Business
  • Vijay Modi: Professor of Mechanical Engineering and of Earth and Environmental Engineering; Director of the Laboratory for Sustainable Energy Solutions


  • Leads: Gary Mirrich and Nick Travis, Energy Strategies
  • Jennifer Kearney: Gotham 360

The direction determined by the working group is outlined below.

  1. Columbia is committed to continue to meet 100% of its electricity supply requirements with zero emissions electricity.
  2. Columbia will demonstrate Climate Leadership by being proactive in migrating to a zero emissions electricity supply from generation sources that are consistent with New York State and New York City goals, meet the test for additionality, and are economically competitive.
  3. There is evidence that potential opportunities are emerging in the wind and solar marketplace that Columbia can access in an 18- to 24- month period of time. Many of these opportunities are not yet public but are actively seeking interested climate leaders like Columbia to make them a reality.
  4. Longer term contracting options will likely require major financial commitments, including Canadian hydropower. This precipitates the imperative that Columbia knows its options and understands any offering in the context of the broader market.
  5. Reputational and potentially economic opportunities also exist for Columbia to host some portion of its renewable supply requirement on University properties.
  6. And finally, Columbia will have to confirm, and ideally help shape, the capability for its electricity supply to harmonize with NYC Local Law 97 (LL97) starting in 2024.
  • Immediately advance a short-term renewable electricity strategy.
    • Begin a focused outreach to key New York electricity supply market participants immediately; continuously and actively monitor the market for the foreseeable future.
    • Key market participants include other large NYC customers, generation owners and developers, Energy Service Companies (ESCOs), transmission operators, intermediaries, and key regulators.
  • Continuously and actively monitor the market for the foreseeable future and discuss at working group, to inform a more detailed mid- and long-term procurement strategy.
  • Look for opportunities to help shape the regulatory and market environment in a manner that is consistent with science and Columbia’s interests.
  • Expand the examination of technical and economic feasibility of developing renewable generation on Columbia campuses.

1. Current State

Columbia started purchasing renewable electricity in 2014 in the form of hydropower from the New York Power Authority (NYPA). Starting in 2018, and continuing each year through annual procurement, Columbia achieved net zero emissions for purchased electricity by supplementing NYPA hydropower with National, Green-e Certified RECs. In 2018, a renewable electricity study was conducted to outline steps to advance a long-term strategy transition from brown power to renewable resources.

  • Existing Commitment: Annual 100% renewable/zero emissions under The Climate Registry (TCR) accounting standard
  • Renewable Electricity (RE) Supply Strategy
    • Match annual electricity consumption megawatt hours (MWh) with purchases of RE and environmental attribute certificates (also denominated in MWh).
      • NYPA hydropower delivered to Morningside and accounting for about 5.5% of total Columbia supply.
      • Two solar projects delivering to Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO) account for about 2.5% of total Columbia supply (80% of LDEO requirement).
      • Brown power + RECs: 1–2-year strategy:
        • Purchase balance of physical power from the NY grid.
        • Offset associated emissions with unbundled, Green-e certified RECs from RE projects outside of New York.
  • Volumes and Emissions
    • 280,209 MWh (2019)
      • Baker Athletic Complex: 3,323 MWh
      • Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC): 98,296 MWh
      • LDEO: 8,801 MWh
      • Manhattanville (MHVL): 34,135 MWh
      • Morningside: 133,408 MWh
      • Nevis: 1,095 MWh
      • Other: 521 MWh
  • Emissions
    • Before RE/RECs, 73,100 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (tCO2e)
    • After RE/RECs, claimed 100% renewable electricity and report zero emissions

2. Future State

Columbia recognizes that requiring and consuming more zero emission electricity from the local grid will have a greater positive impact long-term. Accordingly, helping facilitate the acceleration of decarbonization of Columbia’s local grid will be a guiding objective of the University's zero emission electricity procurement strategy, which also remains consistent with the objectives of LL97.

What “Climate Leadership” looks like to Columbia when it comes to electricity supply:

  • Hierarchy: avoid/reduce, on-site generation, local and “physical” time-matched supply, offsets.
    • I.e., Efficiency/self-generation/power purchase agreements (PPA)/RECs
  • Migrate toward local, “physical” supply.
  • Demonstration projects on campus.
  • Advocate for the matching of real-time electricity demand with zero carbon electricity sources, and set goals to achieve this over time.
  • Network with and learn from other NYC-based (corporate) entities facing similar challenges with new city and state laws.
  • Pursue active and transparent conversations with city and state lawmakers to better understand trajectory of the law and implications.

Pivotal to Columbia achieving sustainability goals and science-based targets.

  • Electrification is key to achieving University net zero emissions goals and science-based targets, including total cumulative emissions by the net zero year.
  • To electrify, University decision makers must understand the full cost – including RE supply costs.

Upcoming electrification study will provide infrastructure path and costs (capital); but requires renewable electricity supply costs (operating) to provide full picture.

  • Central Plant Electrification study, targeted for completion in May 2022, will generate proposed infrastructure changes/costs and volumetric information required to forecast fossil fuel usage decreases and electricity volume increases.
  • To accurately forecast the “true cost” for Columbia to electrify, an estimated supply cost for fuel and electricity is required.
    • Request for Proposal (RFP) for the Central Plant Electrification Study calls for Columbia to provide renewable electricity specs and supply costs.
    • Therefore, electrification and renewable electricity action are interrelated and must happen in parallel.

Renewable electricity is key to achieving the University’s science-based targets.

  • To ensure the University achieves science-based targets set forth to meet the President’s net zero emissions commitment, there must be clear renewable electricity strategy to meet existing and future electricity needs

Columbia’s first objective in terms of defining future requirements is determining the amount of electricity each year within each planning period (see below), that will be needed to meet both existing loads as they are reduced by aggressive energy efficiency, as well as new loads that materialize due to electrification of fossil-fueled campus utility equipment and campus expansion. An estimate of future electricity requirements will by definition need to be expressed as a range given the level of uncertainty around a number of assumptions. Columbia will also need to estimate what portion of its electrical requirements will need to be supplied from LL97 eligible sources to avoid penalties for exceeding increasingly stringent building carbon intensity limits over time.

Once the University’s clean electricity needs are quantified, Columbia will be seeking alternatives to the brown power it buys today. The process of identifying viable RE options, evaluating alternatives, and making commitments, begins in 2021 with an initial approach to the market, as described below. Columbia will be seeking an understanding of just what it can obtain and when, beginning with a search in 2021 for any options that will allow an accelerated transition away from using National RECs.

A critical aspect of successfully matching Columbia’s climate leadership principles with available short and long-term RE supply, begins by defining, then being guided by specifications specific to Columbia.

Renewable Electricity Specifications

As Columbia moves to approach the market, the following will guide the University’s specifications:

  • 100% zero emission electricity
  • The following technologies are acceptable/a priority:
    • Wind, solar, and other intermittent RE resources
    • Intermittent resources combined with storage (e.g., battery electric storage)
    • Hydro, geothermal, biomass, other
    • Generation burning renewable fuels (e.g., hydrogen, landfill gas, etc.)
    • Nuclear
  • Zero emissions electricity should be “time matched” to load (“24/7”) as is becoming best practice in forward thinking organizations seeking to secure zero emissions electricity
  • Zero emissions resources located nearer to Columbia’s local grid have higher value
  • Columbia will seek to link efforts to research and learning opportunities

For the planning period of 2021 to 2024, Columbia’s commitment to net zero emissions will include a push away from its initial offset strategy toward a proactive and grid-leveraging strategy that fosters greater RE growth in general, and specific project commitments by Columbia.

The transition from the Current State (brown power + RECs) toward the Short-Term time horizon, will exhibit these characteristics:


  • Evaluate options for combining brown power with RECs to cover CY2020 (including committing to multi-year supply and pricing from known generation assets).
  • Initiate evaluation of mid-term & long-term opportunities, i.e., commercial PPA opportunities like the JP Morgan arrangement with Brookfield in NY State.
  • Review of other short-term options that improve the quality of Columbia’s REC or power supply, including, for example, short-term, potentially non-LL97 RECs based on limited term commitments to in-state renewable projects,
  • Immediately approach the market for mid- to long- term opportunity, i.e., to compare against TDI opportunity for 15-20+ year range of time. [*see Market Approach below]
  • Study and identify opportunity for on-site renewables opportunities, i.e., solar on roofs. Leverage local law 94 that require this of new buildings.


  • Utilize brown power + National RECs secured in 2021 OR gravitate to commercial PPA or other higher “quality” offerings, if/as available.


  • Evaluate potential mid and long-term commercial PPA opportunities surfaced through market approach initiatives from 2021-2022


  • Evaluate and execute mid and long-term zero emissions contract(s) opportunities. Support progress toward LL97 objectives as that rule becomes effective that year.

*Market Approach: The recommended approach advocates for a coordinated set of defined steps to be undertaken starting as soon as possible to root out short-term opportunities, with room to weave in mid- and longer- term opportunities as they become more visible over time. The Group supports utilizing the following process outline document and other resources that Working Group consultant Energy Strategies has compiled:

  1. Identify and survey large RE buyers to gain insight and guidance
  2. Develop question set for seller/buyer contacts to obtain comparable responses
  3. Develop/vet question set and reach out to identified regulators on key issues
  4. Identify and interview regulator contacts
  5. Develop “prospectus” for communicating externally Columbia’s volumetric requirements and product specifications to market contacts
  6. Identify and interview seller market contact targets
  7. Communicate findings and Action Plan

This process will:

  • Review and discuss tangible opportunities emerging in the marketplace that can be accessed in an 18 to 24-month period
  • Determine applicability of virtual and direct PPAs with sources like offshore wind and solar in New York State, including resources likely to comply with LL97
  • Investigate projects in the pipeline in early development and renewable developers that may be seeking climate leaders like Columbia to turn projects into reality
  • Prepare the University to make an informed decision about TDI when a contract is delivered in mid-2021.

For the period 2024 to 2030, the NY electricity grid is set to undergo a rapid expansion of its non-emitting power generation supply, to a point that by 2030 the grid will be 70% renewable. During this time, Columbia will continue its path toward zero emissions electricity through use of a combination of cleaner grid electricity, combined with commitments to mid and long-term energy supply agreements from renewable and other zero emissions electricity supplies. The first steps toward obtaining market supplies of zero emissions electricity through contract commitments will have begun during the short-term period and will accelerate as regulatory and market enhancements facilitate greater choice of in supply options.

For the years following 2030, as the NY electric grid continues its shift toward 100% clean energy in 2040 as required by the CLCPA, Columbia will align its strategy for long-term supply in a way that leverages those the “greening grid”, but also places Columbia in a position to enact its own procurements, as necessary, to stay on its science-based trajectory, regardless of when the grid crosses the “100% clean” finish line. Columbia will exercise that flexibility by maintaining a sharp focus on the progress made under the CLCPA and staying in touch with the RE marketplace. Leverage the “greening” NYS grid precipitated by the CLCPA, as the NYS power market transitions to net zero emissions by 2040.