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Water tank

Crews are building an insulated water tank that will deliver chilled water to the UNL campus cooling system during the hottest summer hours, lowering its utility bills by up to $900,000 a year.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln is one of only three Big Ten Conference schools that had no concrete plans to reduce its carbon footprint -- which, at first, sounds alarming.

But a closer look by the Journal Star reveals that the state’s flagship university was miles ahead of the game of its new peers. Plus, rather than shooting for an unattainable goal that sounds good, university officials said they’re collecting data to have a better idea of both their present benchmark and an achievable emissions pledge.

Investing in sustainable technologies is the right move, both for the bottom line and the planet – and we’re glad to see the university pursue it. But the UNL administration deserves significant praise for its forward-looking policies to save energy and save money, which have been steadily paying increasing dividends for years.

Ahead of the pack, particularly on a topic that makes as much business and environmental sense as greenhouse gas reductions, is a good place to be.

Among the 11 Big Ten universities whose carbon dioxide emissions are publicly known, UNL ranks first by a wide margin with 182,600 metric tons in 2016. That’s nearly a third better than the University of Maryland at College Park, which recorded 239,800 metric tons over the same interval.

Plus, even as UNL has reported years of record enrollment, added research staff and constructed several new facilities, its energy usage has been nearly halved in the last two decades. The university provides living proof that investing in energy-saving techniques can pay for itself through decreased utility costs.

As a result, UNL hasn’t operated its coal-fired power and heating plant to power campus for several years – unlike several Big Ten peers – but purchases all of its electricity from the Lincoln Electric System by way of two power pools.

Further reducing the carbon footprint is the fact that more than 74 percent of the energy UNL buys from LES comes from hydroelectric, wind and solar sources. Coal, meanwhile, has fallen to less than 2 percent last year – despite constituting 44 percent of its electricity merely five years ago.

Each of these figures on its own is impressive. But, taken together, they illustrate a university that strived for sustainability long before it became a buzzword. Without that long-term vision, UNL would be playing catch-up to its associates rather than leading the pack.

As Jim Jackson, UNL’s director of facilities and maintenance planning bluntly told the Journal Star: "Some of the things the other universities have announced they will be doing to reduce their emissions are things we did 15 years ago.”

Years of foresight have placed Nebraska’s largest university in an enviable position among fellow Big Ten institutions. And while UNL isn’t yet pledging carbon-neutrality like some of its conference mates as it gathers data, it’s much closer to that admirable goal than those that have made such high-profile promises.

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