Our Climate Commitment: Q&A With Laura Bankey

We discussed the National Aquarium's recent commitment to become net-zero by 2035 with resident expert Laura Bankey.

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On Earth Day of this year, we announced a major milestone in our commitment to combat climate change: The National Aquarium's operations will achieve net-zero emissions by 2035. This is exciting news—but what exactly is net-zero, and how will we get there?

To get a better understanding, we sat down with National Aquarium Vice President of Conservation Programs Laura Bankey to discuss our climate commitment and learn more about how we plan to combat climate change by lowering our emissions to net-zero.

Question: How does net-zero work?

Answer: Any time a person or an organization uses energy, they become responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions related to that energy source. Generally, if you use a renewable energy source, the associated emissions are close to zero, but if it's from fossil fuels, then there are emissions from the extraction of those fossil fuels, from the transmission of those fossil fuels and from the burning of those fossil fuels. All of those numbers get put into your equation when you calculate your carbon footprint.

When you become net-zero, you have cancelled out (taken down to zero) the greenhouse gas emissions your operations created through a combination of the following ways.

First, you can reduce your energy use through changes in your operations or by optimizing efficiency. This will almost never get you to zero but is an important first step.

Second, you can ensure the energy you do use has the lowest greenhouse gas emissions possible. Typically, this means relying on clean and renewable energy. If you are not able to produce renewable energy on-site and your energy supplier does not source from 100% renewable energy, you could sign a power purchase agreement or purchase renewable energy certificates, known as RECs, to lower the associated emissions.

Finally, you can support activities that remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, which is like adding a negative number to your equation. Examples include planting trees and investing in carbon sequestration technologies. While this last strategy is important and something we do already, we need to focus on limiting the amount of emissions we release in the first place.

Question: Can you describe the process of calculating a carbon footprint?

Answer: Calculating your carbon footprint involves determining the climate impact of every aspect of your operations. Understanding your energy use is a big part of that equation and you must take into account not only the amount of energy you use, but also the type of energy because each type of energy has different greenhouse gas emission profiles. Organizations can choose to both implement energy-saving strategies and source clean energy, so there is always some level of control over your climate impact. But energy isn't the only impact you should consider; if you want to know your full carbon footprint, you'll also need to calculate the impact of everything you purchase, transportation for both purchased goods and work-related travel, and the waste you produce—so it can get fairly complicated, pretty quickly.

While we are looking at the bigger picture and trying to understand the emissions from all of our operations, we decided to focus on energy use for our climate commitment. This includes the fuels we burn on-site for heating, emergency power and transportation, as well as the electricity we purchase for cooling, lighting and equipment use. When calculating our carbon footprint, we partnered with an outside consultant firm, Verdis Group, to help us because their valued expertise was necessary for accurate accounting and understanding of best practices.

The hardest part of the process is collecting the data. For our energy use alone, we need to know the amounts of electricity and fuel needed to run each of our three buildings and power our vehicles, including our boats. We also need an accounting of our purchases (what we purchase and shipping information), details of our waste streams (trash, recycling and composting), water use, and staff and employee commuting choices. As you can imagine, from an organization our size, this is a hefty task.

Finally, our carbon footprint is calculated in metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents (MtCO₂e) so each of the data points mentioned above need to be translated into units that correspond to climate impact.

Question: We're focusing on our scope 1 and scope 2 emissions to get to net-zero—can you explain what that means?

Answer: There are three categories—or scopes—of greenhouse gas emissions. Scope 1 emissions are those that are directly in your control or emissions created on your campus. In our case it is the fuel we burn on-site to run equipment and vehicles. Scope 2 is the purchased energy you use in your operations that is not directly under your control. For example, while we can dictate how much electricity we use, we generally cannot control how that electricity is generated—and it will have a different climate impact depending on its source. Electricity generated from solar energy has a much smaller climate impact than electricity that comes from a coal-fired power plant.

Scope 3 emissions are indirect emissions; they are related to our operations, but we have minimal influence on their climate impact. For example, we need to purchase various produce to feed the animals in our care. How that produce was grown, how it was transported to the Aquarium—these factors have a carbon footprint and they have to be considered, but their climate impact is controlled by the supplier.

Similar to our work to reduce single-use plastics, we want to work with our vendors for better procurement policies that align with our conservation priorities. For example, making sure that the produce we feed our animals is produced and transported in responsible ways, or grown and harvested locally, will have an effect on the climate impact of those products. By making vendors and suppliers aware of our goals and priorities, we hope to develop a market demand for climate-responsible products.

While Scope 3 emissions are an important part of the overall equation, we are focusing on Scope 1 and 2 emissions for our net-zero goal.

Question: What steps have we already taken to lower our emissions?

Answer: The National Aquarium has always focused on inspiring conservation through the immersion of our guests into the aquatic world. And while some of the habitats we exhibit are completely foreign to most of us, they are also contained within a building not completely unlike our own homes. In this sense, it's important to us to ensure the level of stewardship we have for the aquatic world translated to our own buildings and operations. We are constantly making sure we filter the big decisions we make regarding our operations through the lens of environmental stewardship. For example, when we opened the Australia: Wild Extremes building in 2005, we converted our old outdoor seal pool to a cistern that now collects rainwater from the building roof and stores it until we need it to water our native Maryland plants on the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Waterfront Park. We average an estimated 200,000 gallons of water saved per year.

As our equipment ages, our facilities team has also been really proactive about identifying more efficient technologies available to help us save energy. In 2015, we began working with Constellation to employ some major energy conservation measures. Constellation helped us upgrade equipment like boilers and chillers with high-efficiency models, replace most of our lighting with LED options, improve our building envelope to reduce energy loss and upgrade water fixtures to save water and energy. We estimate that these upgrades have helped us save over 1 million kilowatt-hours a year in energy use.

In that same year, we also signed a power purchase agreement with Constellation and OneEnergy Renewables to support the development of a 4.3-megawatt grid-connection solar generator. The National Aquarium is receiving a significant portion of renewable energy certificates from the project.

From 2010 to 2019, due in major part to these efforts, the Aquarium reduced its emissions by 31%.

Most recently, when our new Animal Care and Rescue Center opened in 2018, we took steps to obtain LEED Silver certification; this included ensuring 100% of the electricity for that building came from wind power.

Question: How will our climate commitment continue to lower our emissions?

Answer: We are looking at our major uses of energy. Obviously, it's the big elephant in the room—we purchase a lot of electricity for our buildings for heating and cooling, running pumps, lighting, etc.—so anything that we can do to make our operations more efficient is always a priority.

We will never get that energy use down to zero, but we are committed to decreasing it as much as possible by making everything as efficient as possible. For the remainder of energy we need, we make sure it comes from clean and renewable sources.

We know we will have to rely on energy in the future—how much of it can we create on-site through things like our new on-site solar tree and emerging technologies? We've done some scoping work on solar roofs and similar options in the past, and the technology wasn't there yet to be able to provide what we need for our unique needs and architecture. We're hoping with emerging technologies that we will be able to provide more on-site renewables, which would be really the best possible option.

That and promoting the advancement of renewable energy as a general energy source for the population will be key strategies in achieving our goals. Things like having a power purchase agreement with our partners helps our energy providers understand that there's a need and a market for renewable energy and we want to continue to make sure that need is seen by the energy sector.

Question: What types of renewable energy do we use now? Are there any other types that we’ll use in the future?

Answer: To date, we have focused on wind and solar energy. We have the new solar tree, in partnership with Constellation, and we're so excited about being able to showcase that technology as something people can use in their personal lives or in corporate settings, so that's great.

We have purchased renewable energy certificates for the energy needs for our three buildings.

There are a lot of technologies that are just coming into their own and we're watching them very carefully. We want to ensure that anything we use in the future doesn't come with unintended consequences. We need to focus on responsible development of renewable energy and make sure the benefit of the clean energy is not offset by the way it was developed or put in place. That's really important for all types of clean energy out there.

There are also a lot of amazing, very smart people developing brand-new technologies that five years ago, we didn't even think existed. We'll watch those carefully, and I think we have a bright future in front of us.

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