Spotlight Large-Scale Solutions
Think boldly and question assumptions, said presenters at the Smart and Sustainable Campuses Conference. That’s the way to shed light on new energy efficiencies.
By Michele Madia and Tadu Yimam
Speed, scope, and scale were the answers Christine Ervin provided in her opening remarks at the fourth annual Smart and Sustainable Campuses Conference at the University of Maryland, College Park, in April. The question being illuminated: What defines the nature of the sustainability challenges we face?
The speed, scope, and scale of climate change—arguably the greatest global challenge of our time—require swift and bold response, warned Ervin, a spokesperson on market-based strategies for green buildings, clean energy, and climate change, and the former founding president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Green Building Council. Those three words were repeated often during the meeting.
The Smart and Sustainable Campuses Conference was developed by NACUBO in partnership with the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education; APPA: Leadership in Educational Facilities; the Campus Consortium for Environmental Excellence; the Campus Safety Health and Environmental Management Association; the Society for College and University Planning; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; and the University of Maryland, College Park.
The program brought to the limelight success stories from colleges and universities around the country and drew an energizing mix of students, administrators, and faculty committed to helping their respective institutions pursue sustainability on campus. Two hands-on preconference workshops examined development of climate action plans, from initiating the earliest stages of conception to determining which mitigation strategies are most effective. More than 40 concurrent sessions offered topics ranging from green purchasing policies to water management, social entrepreneurship, and institutionalizing sustainability. Following are highlights of the conference.
In the Public Eye
In an interesting role reversal, a panel of journalists shared suggestions with campus leaders about how to get their institutions' initiatives covered by the press. Explaining the specialized knowledge required to cover today's environmental beat, including the economics of climate policy, were Scott Carlson, Chronicle of Higher Education senior reporter; Juliet Eilperin, a staff writer at the Washington Post; and Richard Monastersky, an editor at Nature magazine. Moderator Xarissa Holdaway, managing editor for ClimateEdu at the National Wildlife Federation, and Ken Rother, president and chief operating officer for the TreeHugger media outlet and vice president of operations for Planet Green Interactive, shared the mission-based perspective of journalism.
The challenge for media outlets these days, the journalists said, is to shift the public's attention from debate about the existence of climate change to the rationale for making carbon reduction a priority. While global warming poses a more urgent threat than ever, it is no longer "new" news to the ears of the public. Questions from the audience focused primarily on how stories can be made topical, what information writers are looking for, and how campus leaders can keep their institutions on the positive side of what gets reported.
Eilperin noted that she doesn't look for feel-good stories. Rather, she prefers a story that appeals to the intelligence of her audience. Carlson reflected on the dwindling age of investigative reporting and his goal as a writer to cover the whole story—not just report cards and rating systems. Holdaway and Rother recounted some of the strong responses they've received from user-generated Web sites and interactive sites. Monastersky noted a key difference with magazine content: "We're not on a daily deadline. We've got collaborative teams who can debate, discuss risk analysis, and tell a great story. This, in the end, is all we want to do as reporters, to be creative and be great storytellers."
What are the most important actions a campus can take to become climate neutral? This question was posed by Wendell Brase, vice chancellor of administration and business services for the University of California, Irvine. During his presentation on the role of green information technology in achieving climate neutrality, Brase suggested four key actions a campus should take:
- Reduce energy consumption.
- Expand on-campus housing and sustainable transportation.
- Invest in renewable energy and efficient energy production.
- Find large-scale solutions for large-scale problems.
While reducing energy consumption may seem like low-hanging fruit, Brase encouraged participants to pursue "deep energy efficiency" by going beyond the typical goal of 15 percent energy savings that many retrofit projects have. By focusing on speed, scope, and scale, you can tackle projects with the biggest potential for energy efficiencies, carbon reduction, and financial savings.
Brase urged participants at research universities to place a major focus on laboratories, which represent a full
two thirds of the carbon footprint at most research institutions. For instance, UC Irvine's 18 laboratories consume as much energy as the institution's other 120 buildings combined. To improve the efficiency of these buildings, the university has challenged some preconceived notions about efficiency.
For starters, the common, unchallenged wisdom on campus suggested that data centers, with their racks of computers and equipment that consume huge amounts of energy, must be kept cool in order to prevent equipment malfunctions. Brase himself had never challenged this assumption until one day he noticed on CNN a similar rack of computers in a tent in Afghanistan. Presumably the tent was not air-conditioned, and Brase wondered why the data centers at UC Irvine were held at such a low temperature.
After checking with manufacturers and determining that most of the equipment would run without fail at temperatures as high as 95 degrees (an outside temperature that is never reached in Irvine, California), IT staff have gradually raised the temperature within the data centers on campus, significantly enhancing the energy efficiency of these centers. The university is employing other methods to further maximize the efficiency of its data centers, including cold-aisle containment—essentially putting a lid over the computer racks so that the cold air stays in but the hot exhaust can escape—and air-side economizers, which bring outside air in to cool the systems.
Brase proposed a number of other deep energy-efficiency measures, including server virtualization, load management, and greener computing. He encouraged participants to think big and to support ambitious goals and plans for energy retrofits and sustainable energy projects.
A Blue School Goes Green
Kenneth Keeler, pollution prevention specialist at the University of Michigan (UM), shared examples of sustainability work his institution has undertaken. He identified six critical areas of focus for UM: annual reporting, renewable energy, alternative transportation, green purchasing, new construction and renovation projects, and Planet Blue—a three-year project designed to actively engage the UM community to conserve utilities and increase recycling. The first initiative—that of developing an annual report—was originally conceived and created by UM graduate students and later became a school mandate.
Keeler noted the importance of identifying trends within the data to enable the university to focus on future environmental efforts. The mission of each UM initiative is to provide continued understanding of the institution's environmental impact so that the campus can demonstrate improvements over time.
Rick Martin, principal sustainability analyst at Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York, spoke of the social systems changes that campuses, the public, and the media must develop to move forward. For instance, by looking at the long-term socioecological systems on campus, one can observe many interactions among students, faculty, and administration with regard to energy use, waste reduction, and so forth. It's crucial, says Martin, to teach systems thinking, adopt a long-term perspective, encourage dual and interdisciplinary majors, and challenge faculty to shift teaching methods from a process-based approach to a systems approach.
Meghan Fay, a program manager for the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, updated participants about the progress and development of AASHE's Sustainability Tracking, Assessment, and Rating System. STARS is a collaborative effort to develop a voluntary, self-reporting framework for gauging relative progress toward sustainability for colleges and universities. More specifically, STARS is designed to:
- Provide a guide for advancing sustainability in all sectors of higher education.
- Enable meaningful comparisons over time and across institutions by establishing a common standard of measurement for sustainability in higher education.
- Create incentives for continual improvement toward sustainability.
- Facilitate information sharing about higher education sustainability practices and performance.
- Build a stronger, more diverse campus sustainability community.
More than 70 colleges and universities participated in a STARS pilot throughout 2008. Based on feedback from the pilot and other strategic and technical advisers, AASHE is now updating the rating system. After the public comment period ends, AASHE staff and advisers will incorporate the feedback and move toward launching STARS 1.0 by the end of this year or early in 2010. STARS 1.0 marks the first version for which AASHE will offer ratings to users. For more information about STARS, go to www.aashe.org/stars/index.php or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Beacon on Service
The conference's final plenary session included the voices of three students involved in campus sustainability efforts: Sarah Brylinsky, a December 2008 graduate of Ithaca College, Ithaca, New York; Philip Zapfel, a student at the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia; and Marci Smith, a student at Transylvania University, Lexington, Kentucky. Brylinsky described her experience as refreshing: "I became the change I wanted to see in the world." Zapfel explained how he brought dollars to administrators by promoting a green fee to be assessed annually of all students, raising close to $200,000. Smith elaborated on current efforts at Transylvania to make the campus more environmentally friendly. "It's hard when you're just one person," Smith explained, "but there's great potential for a handful of passionate students to effect change."
An engaged audience encouraged the young adults to transfer their knowledge and methods to incoming freshmen so that student enthusiasm for and involvement in campus sustainability efforts continue to grow. "Absolutely," Brylinsky responded. "We've started something, but I don't think our work will ever end."
Setting a Carbon Example
Partnering organizations promoted green practices at the conference. For the second year, attendees did their part to reduce global warming through the purchase of high-quality carbon offsets to mitigate pollution generated by participant travel and energy use while at the conference.
This year's purchase through NativeEnergy—an organization dedicated to helping build Native American, farmer-owned, and community-based renewable projects—will support an anaerobic digester project to convert manure into electricity at Mains Family Dairy in Newville, Pennsylvania. More than half the electricity generated will be used for farm operations, with additional electricity fed back to the local grid. An anaerobic digester avoids emissions of carbon dioxide and methane in two ways. First, it replaces traditional local-grid electricity sources (typically derived from coal) with renewable energy. Second, it curtails methane emissions that would otherwise naturally be released from the manure into the atmosphere. To learn more about NativeEnergy, go to www.nativeenergy.com.
In addition to purchasing carbon offsets, conference planners incorporated environmental practices wherever possible in connection with conference materials, lodging, transportation, food services, and waste management. These greening efforts not only minimized the environmental impact of the conference, but also provided instructive guidance for institution leaders to take home as we all move toward a more sustainable future.