Students at College of the Atlantic inspect solar panels in an immersive off-campus experience. Sustainability intersecting with hands-on education out of the classroom is one of many ways COA promotes and fosters ecologically friendly practices.Students at College of the Atlantic inspect solar panels in an immersive off-campus experience. Sustainability intersecting with hands-on education out of the classroom is one of many ways COA promotes and fosters ecologically friendly practices.

Atop the Sierra Club’s 2016 campus sustainability rankings sits College of the Atlantic, a tiny liberal arts college in Maine whose student body counts just 350 undergraduates — fewer than some public schools cram into a single Biology 101 lecture hall. In 2007, College of the Atlantic became the country’s first carbon-neutral school, an objective it achieved primarily by investing in offsets provided by a traffic light optimization project in Portland, Oregon. Although the offsets cost just $22,000, the purchase wasn’t universally popular — some students argued that the college should concentrate on improving on-campus efficiency and fostering Maine’s renewable energy industry.

Today, College of the Atlantic no longer buys offsets, but it gets more than 40 percent of its energy from wind farms, community solar projects, local wood pellets, and other fossil fuel-free sources. The college now plans to go carbon-free by 2050 — a target that Anna Demeo, director of energy education and management, says it’s on track to beat.

“We had to lose the title of carbon neutrality,” Demeo says. “But in the end that title wasn’t as important as teaching students from the ground-up how to participate in local renewable energy economies.”

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