12/04/2012 12:19 EST | Updated 02/03/2013 05:12 EST

Is This the Greenest Campus in Canada?

Church Point, a little-known dot on the map in rural southern Nova Scotia, isn't exactly a tourist hotspot. But for sustainability nerds it's an unexpected haven. It's home to St. Anne University, or Université Sante Anne as it's called in French and it may be the greenest little university in Canada.


Church Point, a little-known dot on the map in rural southern Nova Scotia, isn't exactly a tourist hotspot. I mean it is incredibly beautiful, it's on the Evangeline trail and it is home to the tallest wooden church in North America, but it's not exactly Rome or Paris.

But for sustainability nerds it's an unexpected haven. It's home to St. Anne University, or Université Sante Anne as it's called in French and it may be the greenest little university in Canada. It's a small campus, home to about 300 students and it's also the only fully Francophone campus in Nova Scotia.

While the campus has been green since 2010 the process started back in 2003 when the school was working on a fundraising campaign with some fuzzy thoughts about reducing their electricity costs with a wind turbine and getting Church Point involved in green energy projects.

As part of their municipal district they visited Gussing, Austria. Like Church Point it had had some economic troubles and wasn't located in a very resource-rich area. The town of Gussing developed a model to use local renewable resources to supply its energy needs and actually became a net exporter of energy. Today Gussing produces more heat and electricity than it needs and also produces 8,000 tonnes of bio-diesel a year.

With that example in mind they produced a plan which included and inspired St. Anne University to take on what they call their Green Commitment.

Green Commitment

It's a bit over three hours by car to get to the campus from Halifax but the drive is one of the prettiest in the country especially in the autumn. We toured around the campus in the company of Allister Surette, the president of the university. It's a small, homey little community they have here, all short, low-slung buildings right on St. Mary's Bay on the western tip of Nova Scotia.

Take a closer look at the buildings though and you start to notice all of the solar thermal collectors, 118 of them to be precise, spread out over the campus, some mounted on building roofs, others on the ground.

However, the biggest help in slashing the university's heating costs and dependence on shipped-in heating oil was a new biomass boiler. Located in a non-descript shed-like building with a "systeme de combustion de biomass" sign on it, provides the majority of the heating for the campus with a backup heating oil boiler still needed for the winter months.

It burns between 300- and 330-tonnes of wood chips a month. You combine the solar thermal hot water systems with the biomass boiler St. Anne University ended saving 50 per cent on their heating bill. Between 2008 and 2010 they burned 71 per cent less fuel oil and 29 per cent less propane. Today they spend $100,000 on wood chips, and $100,000 on heating oil a year and they have plans to replace their backup oil-fired boiler with a biomass one in the future. That's half of the $400,000 they used to spend on fuel oil.

Finally they erected a small 50-kilowatt wind turbine which saves them around $15,000 a year in electricity costs. They've put up another 50-kilowatt turbine under Nova Scotia's COMFIT program but are waiting to connect it to the grid. That system cost $300,000 and will generate $50,000 a year.

"I spent some nights wondering how we were going to achieve this in the end," says Surettte. The two biggest worries were the capital cost which were handled via a raft of grants and programs. Whoever was writing grants for St. Anne University at the time certainly earned their keep

All of these projects (minus the second turbine) cost $2.5 million and they were all paid for via a raft of various grants and government programs. You add all of these projects up and it means that St. Anne University saves $200,000 a year. That's an extra $200,000 a year that this small Francophone campus has in its budget to provide a better education for its students.

Community and Student Development

The other thing that kept Surette up at night was getting access to a steady supply of wood chips for the biomass boiler. Finding 300-tonnes of wood chips a month was a logistical and economic challenge to making this plan work.

"There was no local supplier of wood chips and to transport wood chips from as far away as Halifax you're sort of defeating the purpose because of the trucking," says Surette.

The municipal district helped out with storage capacity and a former pig farmer turned biomass entrepreneur had the trucks and contacts in the area needed to supply the university. He bought the chipper on his own dime and now the university is running its own little green jobs program in its own community. The best part? He's only seven kilometres away from the university.

The ashes are also used as a soil conditioner by nearby farmers.

The students have noticed this green commitment as well and have taken notice. Chris McDaniel is a bright, young ambitious student who wants to be a teacher. He's also the vice-president of communications with the student's union.

"Being a green university, having a green campus makes this place sustainable for the future. It also plays a role in regards to our student population. I believe it brings students in. Students usually come here to study french but if they're interested in the environment as well this will bring them on board," says McDaniel.

"There's a great pride amongst the students in regards to our green projects on campus. When I started here there was a small committee and now its developed and its grown. We have lots of interest, we have record numbers in our environmental group. We've been taking on a lot of new projects, it's very exciting."

Attracting, high-quality engaged students might not have been why St. Anne University went down this road but it sure is a nice ancillary benefit. It's a small example but it's always a pleasure to see it when a community gets the importance of green energy, comes up with a plan and executes it well.

"We achieved all our objectives; reduced greenhouse gases, reduced our energy costs by a half and more than that the money is staying in the community," says Surette.

It's win-win-win for St. Anne University, now it's time for other university campuses around the country to follow their lead.