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Business Officer Magazine

Energy Stewards

Environmentally conscious campuses are taking on the role of managing resource consumption. Highlights of the 2010 Smart and Sustainable Campuses Conference describe efforts to preserve and protect.

By Michele Madia and Tadu Yimam

*The fifth annual Smart and Sustainable Campuses Conference at the University of Maryland, College Park, in March took 280 participants well beyond the basics. With a theme of “Making the Business Case,” programming was organized into four tracks: a new track on financing sustainability, plus operational solutions, planning and smart growth, and institutionalizing sustainability. More than 30 concurrent sessions, two preconference workshops, five plenary sessions, and a campus tour offered innovative and creative strategies for modeling new and more sustainable ways of living and operating.

Another 200 participants took advantage of a more sustainable alternative to the conference: NACUBO's first virtual event. The interactive online option offered many of the same opportunities found at the live event, such as program sessions, networking, and exhibits (see sidebar, “A Virtual, Carbon-Free Event”).

Following are highlights of the conference.

How Many Chips Does a Wood-Chip Burner Burn?

*The entire campus community at Middlebury College, Middlebury, Vermont, has collaborated on energy management to move the college toward its goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2016. Bob Huth, executive vice president and acting executive director of business and financial operations, described the development of a glass-enclosed biomass gasification plant on the campus, from its inception as an idea generated through student research to its current operating status.

In 2002, Middlebury's Environmental Council, composed of students, faculty, and staff, recommended the formation of a Carbon Reduction Initiative (CRI) working group to develop a plan and recommendations for reducing campus carbon emissions. The CRI working group supported the formation of a course in 2003 that would delve into challenges and opportunities for carbon reductions. The students in that class produced a 200-page report, “Carbon Neutrality at Middlebury College,” which provided a portfolio of strategies most likely to:

  • Be feasible within the constraints of Middlebury College operations.
  • Produce the greatest net reduction in campus greenhouse-gas emissions.
  • Provide the greatest long-term potential for significant mitigation of campus climate impact.

Trustees, excited about the possibilities, approved the $12 million project in October 2006 and set a goal of carbon neutrality by 2016.

Installing a biomass gasification system was one of the primary recommendations of the report. Gasification is a process of smoldering wood chips to create a gas, then injecting oxygen to generate an explosion that creates heat—thereby maximizing the heat value of the wood. Middlebury was further able to incorporate technology into this system that allows the wood to burn cleaner than oil.

Project cost. The total cost for the project was $11.8 million, which included $2.5 million for the gasification technology. About $8 million was needed to upgrade the service building to accommodate storing and moving the wood chips and cleaning the air. Positive cash flow of about 1 percent began right from the start of the project. Using the biomass system as a “baseload” displaced 1 million gallons of No. 6 fuel oil and immediately saved $90,000 from the cost of running the No. 6 oil boiler.

Cost comparison. The cost of one ton of wood chips equals the cost of approximately 50 gallons of fuel oil. Middlebury has developed relationships with biomass producers, is acquiring chips from multiple suppliers, and has guaranteed pricing by engaging in a three-year futures contract. This means that a significant decline in oil prices might put the school at a competitive disadvantage, but it was a risk Middlebury was willing to take.

Local resources. Middlebury realized that biomass gasification was not just about efficiencies, new technologies, or reduced costs, but rather about transforming its energy sourcing from distant to local. Vermont does not produce oil; so as a result, all drilling, refining, and transporting dollars have been spent outside of Vermont. To support its oil-based system, Middlebury had been receiving daily shipments from an oil tanker ported in Albany, New York. The tanker, which traveled up the Hudson River from a distant location, most likely originally sourced its oil from as far away as Texas or Louisiana.

Eliminating the need for a million gallons of oil and converting to 20,000 tons of wood chips that could be sourced from within a 75-mile radius of the college was a transformative decision for the community. Landowners, forest lumber mills, and local transporters all benefit from the change, and local governments can now appreciate the taxes on these expenses.

Operational risks. One of the risks of installing the new technology was that the system can't maintain building temperatures if the outside temperature drops below minus 10 degrees for more than six days in a row. If that happens, Middlebury must close. During Vermont's cold winter climate, up to three trucks of chips a day are delivered to campus.

Major lessons. Among the lessons learned while implementing the new system at the college was that a biomass gasification system is more difficult to operate than a traditional oil boiler. There are more moving parts, a less-developed supply chain, more maintenance infrastructure, and a big learning curve. For example, bole-tree chips (from big logs without branches) work better than whole-tree chips, frozen chips are more difficult to gasify, hardwoods work better than softwoods, and ash has to be removed. The system currently produces 1 percent ash, and Middlebury has an arrangement with a local farmer to put the ash into fertilizer to complete a closed-loop system.

A Virtual, Carbon-Free Event

Demonstrating its commitment to sustainability and new learning styles, NACUBO offered its first virtual event on March 23, the second day of the live Smart and Sustainable Campuses Conference. More than 200 virtual participants had the opportunity to learn and network at the meeting without increasing their carbon footprint or incurring travel expenses.

For a single registration fee, an unlimited number of participants on a campus could take advantage of this interactive, online event. Features included:

  • An auditorium, where five highlighted sessions were webcast, followed by live online chats with the presenters.
  • An exhibit hall with online exhibits staffed by the companies and their representatives who were exhibiting at the live event.
  • A networking lounge, where program faculty facilitated online discussions about issues such as social media's influence on sustainability and harnessing the power of students.
  • A resource center, containing more than 50 webcasts, podcasts, book excerpts, white papers, brochures, and fact sheets available for easy download by participants.

Look for more virtual NACUBO events in the future!

Sustainable model. The long-term sustainability of the biomass gasification model depends on how proficiently the project is managed. Middlebury is exploring growing and harvesting its own supply of willow trees, which are particularly well suited for the biomass system because they have fast-growth potential. Middlebury is developing a test plot of willow trees in partnership with the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, where testing is under way on more than 30 varieties of willow trees to identify which kinds work best. The first crop will be harvested this fall and tested in the system. Middlebury could potentially supply 100 percent of its campus heating needs by using only 400 acres of the 1,200 acres dedicated for the willow farm.

Engaging students and the community together in the goal to achieve a carbon-neutral campus has been a rewarding ancillary benefit, said Huth. One of the student authors of the carbon neutrality report spoke at the gasification plant dedication and emphasized that the new system has created a great source of pride and positive morale for the entire college community. It serves as an example and a visible reminder of what can be achieved when a community is willing to take calculated risks to address climate and energy issues.

Large-Campus Efficiency

That sustainable energy management can produce cost savings, even for city-sized campuses, was made clear in the Texas A&M University (TAMU) session, “Going Green, Financially and Environmentally.” Jim Riley, director for utilities and energy management, and Leslie Williams, associate director for utilities and energy management, described results achieved through the installation of highly efficient combined heat and power (CHP) equipment. They discussed a portfolio of programs such as utility metering, lighting upgrades, automation systems, and energy stewards to manage and reduce the energy consumption of the campus.

Located in College Station, TAMU is the nation's sixth largest university in enrollment and holds triple federal designation as a land-grant, sea-grant, and space-grant university. Williams described the campus as "massive" with more than 21.5 million gross square feet (GSF) of building space and a consumption rate of 5.2 trillion Btu of energy annually—providing electricity, cooling, heating, and other utilities in support of the university's educational and research mission. Completing capital upgrades in the four utility plants serving the campus and combining the utilities and energy management team (UEM) with energy systems laboratory and facilities management has resulted in a 33 percent overall reduction in energy consumption per GSF on campus. Williams summarized, “In dollars, we saw a reduction of $90 million from FY02 to FY09.”

Additional improvements under way will bring further efficiencies. “The power-generation equipment in the Central Utility Plant reached the end of its useful life,” said Riley, “and a new CHP project is in progress to provide higher efficiency power and steam-generation capacity by 2011.” The CHP project will include the installation of a modern, high-efficiency gas-turbine generator, a steam-turbine generator with 40 megawatts of electrical power capacity, and a heat-recovery steam generator with 200,000 pounds per hour of steam-generation capacity. “Unlike many projects on campus, this one will pay for itself through cost avoidance,” Riley said.

The operational improvements and the Energy Stewardship Program, which provides leadership and education to raise awareness building by building, are supported wholeheartedly throughout the campus. But that awareness takes effort. Williams said, “You must communicate and reference your accomplishments and acknowledge them. Use them to promote the potential and possibilities moving forward—say to your board, community, and students, 'Look what we've done, look what we've accomplished, and look what's possible moving forward.'”

Nothing Is Impossible

Speaking of Sustainability ...

The California Academy of Sciences is focused on two themes,” says Greg Farrington, executive director and William R. and Gretchen B. Kimball Chair of the California Academy of Sciences. “Each theme translates into a question: the nature of life (How did we get here?) and the challenge of sustainability (How will we find a way to stay?).”

When the building was being conceived, Farrington says, “the staff leadership and the board felt that the new institution should live its mission—which is to say, its building should celebrate life and at the same time illustrate issues and choices related to sustainability. So the idea of creating a platinum-level LEED building was born.

“Doing so in the Bay Area, which is home to so much innovation and technological development in the life sciences, energy, and sustainability, only amplified the logic of the initiative.”

The vision of Pritzker Prize-winning architect, Renzo Piano, the academy's single structure contains multiple venues, including an aquarium, planetarium, natural history museum, and four-story rain forest. In October 2008, the U.S. Green Building Council awarded the academy a platinum-level Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, making the complex the largest public platinum-rated building on the planet and the world's greenest museum.

Here are some of the features that provide energy efficiency to the California Academy of Sciences:

A living roof. Not only does a rooftop canopy visually connect the academy structure to the park's landscape, but it provides significant gains in heating and cooling efficiency. Six inches of soil on the roof act as natural insulation, and skylights automatically open on warm days to vent hot air from the building.

Natural lighting and ventilation. Floor-to-ceiling glass walls enable 90 percent of the building's interior offices to use lighting from natural sources. An automated ventilation system, with louvers that open and close to provide fresh air, takes advantage of the natural air currents of Golden Gate Park to regulate the building's temperature.

Heating from the bottom up. Since warm air rises, traditional heating systems would be extremely wasteful for the 35-foot-high public spaces in the academy. Consequently, a radiant heating system embedded in the museum's floors was chosen. This option is estimated to reduce the building's energy needs by approximately 10 percent annually.

Blue jeans with dual purpose. Forgoing fiberglass or foam-based insulation, the academy chose thick cotton batting made from recycled blue jeans. The fabric holds more heat and absorbs sound better than fiberglass insulation—and is also safer for workers to handle.

What made it possible for a small college in the center of a historic city to expand was a new master plan based on a giant leap of imagination. That's the story of Franklin & Marshall College (F&M), Lancaster, Pennsylvania, presented during the opening plenary session. Keith A. Orris, vice president for administrative services and business, government, and community relations at F&M, described an eight-year journey that more than doubled the 100-acre campus and revitalized a community by transforming a former industrial site.

Founded in 1787, the campus is the 13th-oldest in the nation and educates 2,250 students per year. The size and age of the institution emphasized a critical point in Orris's story: Campuses are substantial community institutions. Orris pointed out that campuses “have been around for generations and they are going to be around for several more generations.” Which means, he noted, “we have the capacity to generate community leaders.” In addition, higher education institutions “examine everything in a comprehensive, multidisciplinary approach, often looking at the long-term investment versus the short-term.” As more and more students were returning to higher education, F&M had outgrown its space and needed more room.

With that in mind, F&M's former president, John Fry, developed an environmentally thoughtful but fast-paced planning and implementation strategy. The Northwest Gateway Project led by Orris's team features the transformation and re-use of two properties adjacent to the F&M campus: a former Armstrong World Industries plant and an active Norfolk Southern rail yard. Once the rail yard was relocated, its land and additional acreage of the former plant are being transformed from industrial brownfields into valuable institutional real estate. The additional 75 acres will become urban parcels, providing 50 years of expansion room for educational, athletic, recreational, and mixed-use projects for the college and its partner, Lancaster General Health.

The key, Orris said, “is not to wait for the planning to be finished. We already knew what we were going to be doing in some areas. And when the strategic opportunity [the sale of the neighboring plant] presents itself, you launch and execute.”

Orris pointed out that partnering with local businesses, building relationships with large institutions such as Lancaster General Health, and investing in the community by encouraging faculty to buy homes (through incentive programs) will increase the value of the institution. He observed that F&M's accomplishments in smart growth, community investment, and use of natural resources in such a short period are nothing short of remarkable. Orris's final words: “Just remember, nothing is impossible.”

More Than Money

Becoming a climate-neutral campus may seem, if not impossible, then certainly challenging, as indicated by several presentations at the conference. To reach that goal, many institutions must consider purchasing carbon offsets as part of their mitigation strategy. In many instances, purchasing offsets is an institution's last resort after exhausting other conservation efforts, realizing its campus energy efficiencies, and using all its renewable sources.

But how do schools ensure that their offset purchases are valid, legitimate, real, and meaningful? One way is to create your own carbon offsets, as Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, is doing.

Tavey McDaniel Capps, Duke's environmental sustainability director, described the innovative programs the university is undertaking. Even with long-term goals in place and significant campus reductions, the university still has carbon emissions, so for now, carbon offsets must be part of the solution. But, Duke “didn't want to just write a check,” said Capps. Instead, the university wanted to embark on projects that have tangible results for North Carolina and its local community, as well as meeting its aggressive goal to achieve climate neutrality.

Duke's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions produced a feasibility study to help determine the role of carbon offsets in meeting Duke's commitment to climate neutrality. A student class assisted with the report, which proposed three initial projects: agriculture and methane capture from hog farms, forest sequestration using the Duke forest and local land trusts, and community energy-efficiency projects.

The first of the three recommended projects is well under way. Through a $500,000 federal grant, the university is participating in a partnership with Duke Energy to install an innovative swine waste management system. Meeting North Carolina environmental performance standards for new and expanded farms, the new system will capture methane and generate electricity and renewable energy credits. Committed to transparency throughout the process, Duke is admittedly struggling with verification of the offsets, Capps said. Is its own internal verification enough? Should third-party certification be required if the offsets will never be sold?

Duke wanted to embark on projects that have tangible results for North Carolina.

Beyond the philosophical questions related to offsets, Duke has found it mutually beneficial to work with the agricultural community to test assumptions, learn about permitting and engineering issues, and refine technology to see how many offsets will be produced. The university also has used the project as a campus learning opportunity for students, faculty, and staff. And, there are plans to expand the project across the state.

Next up for implementation are the forest sequestration and community energy-efficiency projects, as Duke continues to work toward its offset portfolio goals, expand projects as appropriate, and lead students and the local community in sustainable efforts.

MICHELE MADIA is director of environmental leadership and TADU YIMAM is a policy analyst at NACUBO.