UCSF Sustainability Stories

UCSF: Taking on the Challenge of Reducing its Carbon Footprint


From kidney transplants to diabetes research and fetal surgery, UCSF has a reputation for rising to challenges.  A new challenge on UCSF’s plate is reducing its carbon footprint.

Figure 1 A carbon footprint is a measure of the total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions generated by a business, organization or individual and is a tool for assessing one’s contribution to global climate change. As illustrated by the diagram below, the vast majority of UCSF’s carbon footprint comes from energy consumption and the burning fossil fuels for utilities (72 percent). The other major contributors are commuter travel (14 percent) and airline travel (8 percent).
Greenhouse gas emissions are often measured in metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MTCOe), accounting for the global warming potential of different greenhouse gases. In 2008, UCSF emitted 162,713 metric tonnes of MTCOe, spending nearly $35 million on energy to support its health care, research and education mission. The operational energy cost of UCSF’s 750 fume hoods alone is about $4.9 million dollars per year.

Many factors contribute to UCSF’s greenhouse gas emissions:

  • As an urban, multi-site campus, UCSF owns or leases space in 183 buildings throughout San Francisco, occupying 7,184,800 total gross square feet of space.

  • UCSF’s faculty, research staff and students conduct a tremendous amount of energy-intensive laboratory research, as well as serve patients at the medical center and clinics. Research and clinical or complex space comprises about 25 percent of UCSF assignable square footage, but uses about 70 percent of the total energy consumed. The typical laboratory uses far more energy and water per square foot than the typical office building due to energy intensive processes and ventilation requirements.

  • UCSF is the second largest employer in San Francisco, after the City and County of San Francisco, with 22,000 employees and more than 5,000 students, residents and postdoctoral scholars.

  • UCSF’s power supply comes from a combination of a 12 megawatt co-generation plant that provides electricity, steam and chilled water to campus and hospital buildings at Parnassus Heights and contracts with other power suppliers, including PG&E and Sempra Energy.

Where UCSF is Today

UCSF carbon reduction goals are guided by the UC Policy on Sustainable Practices, which outlines three goals for all UC campuses:

• By 2014, to reduce GHG emissions to 2000 levels;
• By 2020, to reduce GHG emissions to 1990 levels; and
• To eventually become climate neutral.

The policy also requires that the UC campuses collectively install 10 megawatts of renewable energy by 2014 and provide 20 percent of their energy needs using renewable resources.

UCSF’s Climate Action Plan (CAP), completed in December 2009, details potential opportunities for reducing the campus’ carbon footprint, UCSF is expected to meet the 2014 goal, which will require cutting emissions by 20 percent to 2000 levels. According to UCSF Campus Planner Paul Franke, to meet the 2014 goal, UCSF will focus on the reduction measures outlined in the CAP, as well as implement additional recommendations found in the UCSF Strategic Energy Plan (SEP).

The SEP outlines a range of energy efficiency projects, such as retrofits, boiler replacement, energy efficient lighting upgrades and a PC power management program.  Over the next three years, $13 million will be invested in energy efficiency projects, with expected reductions of 4,945,471 kilowatt hours, 231,536 therms and estimated annual savings of $890,000.

However, because UCSF is a rapidly growing institution, including plans to build a new medical center at Mission Bay, the CAP predicts that meeting the 2020 goal, which will require cutting emissions by almost 50 percent to reach 1990 levels, “will not be a simple task.”

“UCSF will need to reduce emissions an additional 83,327 MTCO2e in order to meet the 2020 goal. And it is unlikely that we will reach this goal without the purchase of offsets, a significant technological breakthrough in energy production or a reduction in the UCSF growth rate,” said Franke.

UCSF Chancellor Sue Desmond-Hellmann, MD, MPH, acknowledges the challenge. “There are some goals that require an upfront investment. We have a really challenging, old infrastructure, which means not very green and too little investments. This is a huge challenge for us. Even taking baby steps is better than no steps,” she said.

Tackling Carbon from Many Angles

UCSF has many programs in place to reduce its carbon footprint, tackling the challenge from many angles.

Some recent UCSF accomplishments include:

  • Saving $1.2 million in energy savings and reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 5,000 tons in fiscal year 2007-2008.

  • Signing the American College and University President’s Climate Commitment, a broad effort by the nation’s higher education institutions to address global warming by tracking, reporting and reducing their greenhouse gas emissions and is part of the California Climate Action Registry.

  • Making a commitment to build all new campus construction to meet at least the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Engineering and Environmental Design) Silver standard. The new medical center at Mission Bay is expected to be a LEED Gold facility.

  • Green Building
  • In August 2009, Rock Hall received a LEED-Existing Building (EB) Silver rating—the first time UCSF has successfully modified an existing building to fulfill the LEED-EB standards.

  • Diverting more than 50 percent of its waste by promoting composting and recycling programs

  • Promoting a range of sustainable commuting options, including a shuttle system, public transportation and carpooling. More than 25 percent of employees take public transportation to campus, and ridership on the shuttle has more than doubled since 2000, with over 2.2 million passenger boardings in FY 2008-2009.

  • Developing a purchasing program that negotiates competitive prices for greener office supplies and equipment.

  • Launching the “Conservation is Contagious” program in 12 buildings, reducing energy use in select buildings by 6 percent and saving $800,000.

  • Installing 250 kilowatts of solar energy at the Mission Bay 3rd Street garage, reducing UCSF’s carbon footprint by 100 tons of carbon dioxide per year.

Consider Making a Pledge Today

According to Brad Engel, energy engineer, CEM, CEA, CEP, Capital Programs and Facilities Management, to meet UCSF’s carbon reduction goals will require faculty, staff and students to do their part. 

With more than 20,000 employees, if everyone makes a small change, it can make a big difference.  Make a pledge today and be part of the solution.

Here are some easy tips to consider:


• Plug devices into a power strip, as shown, and turn the power strip off when devices are not in use to eliminate vampire power waste.
• Turn off lights and computers at night.
• Shut fume hood sashes when not in use.
• Report lights left on 24/7 or other energy zappers to your facilities manager.
• Print double sided and use recycled paper.
• Take public transit or carpool when possible.
• Have an energy saving idea?  Send it to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).
• Remember to compost and recycle where bins are available.
• Eat local food and shop at the campus farmer’s markets.

Learn More

UCSF: Promoting Best Practices in Recycling and Waste Management
American College and University President’s Climate Commitment
Climate Action Plan

Story:  Deborah Fleischer, Green Impact