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Renewables to Spare

Not only is small, independent Mount St. Mary’s University moving steadily toward climate neutrality on a shoestring budget, it also will soon serve as a solar energy source for the University System of Maryland.

By Michael Malewicki

*In terms of energy generation, we think of Mount St. Mary's University (the Mount), Emmitsburg, Maryland, as the mouse that will feed the elephant. Our small institution recently signed a contract to supply the University System of Maryland with a significant portion of its energy, to be generated by a solar farm being built on approximately 100 acres of vacant land on the Mount's east campus.

We've arrived at this unique position quite gradually. It's largely the result of our commitment to energy conservation coupled with wise and methodical use of our financial resources. Here is how we've gone about meeting our sustainability goals on a shoestring budget.

Small Campus, Big Impact

Routes to Reduced Emissions

Long-range goals identified in Mount St. Mary's University's climate action plan include:

  • Additional improvements in energy efficiency, with continued upgrades to heating and air conditioning systems, controls, and heating infrastructure.
  • On-campus renewable energy production via biomass, wind, or solar power.
  • Occupant behavioral and cultural change based on education, promotional campaigns, and incentives.
  • Renewable-source electricity purchases.
  • Transportation modifications, including the continued upgrade of the university vehicle fleet and exploration of options for ride-sharing whenever possible.

In addition to these goals, the university is in the design phase for what we hope will be our first LEED-certified building and is actively incorporating LEED concepts into other capital improvements wherever feasible.

The solar project came about when the University System of Maryland, looking for alternative energy sources to provide power to its several campuses, put out a request for proposal prior to the financial meltdown in 2007. When Constellation Energy started looking for a site on which to build a solar farm, the Mount campus, with more than 1,400 acres of land, quickly emerged as the primary candidate. In 2009, we partnered with Constellation to provide renewable-source electricity to the University of Maryland.

The energy company began construction this summer on the vacant land on the Mount's east campus and expects to complete the project by January 2012. The solar farm will be the largest in Maryland and also one of the largest in the mid-Atlantic region. The Mount will be the landlord, and Constellation Energy will be the tenant.

While the land will be used primarily to generate electricity for the University System of Maryland, some of the solar-generated power will come to our university as well. We estimate the total annual power production for the solar farm at approximately 14 megawatts of electricity. The Mount also expects to receive more than one megawatt of electricity annually from a dedicated section of the solar farm constructed for its own use. The Constellation Foundation has also supplied our university with a grant, which we plan to use to construct an educational pavilion to explain the solar farm's operation and the benefits of renewable-source energy.

This significant project represents the kinds of outcomes the university has been able to achieve with methodical energy-focused efforts that began in large part with our participation in the American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment (ACUPCC).

Going Green Without Losing Green

In 2007, Mount St. Mary's University President Thomas H. Powell was one of the first to sign the ACUPCC, and to date the Mount has met all obligations and deadlines required by the commitment. These include producing a greenhouse gas inventory of current emissions and a climate action plan for achieving long-range climate neutrality. The Mount's environmental stewardship and sustainability committee (ESSC), which is specifically charged with implementing ACUPCC, produced both documents.

The committee is made up of volunteer faculty, staff, and students who develop and oversee the university's sustainability plans. Members include a biology professor, a physical plant director, and students studying environmental science and related disciplines. Their collective expertise has enabled the university to move forward with its plans for achieving climate neutrality without hiring additional staff (such as a full-time sustainability coordinator, a position that a number of other institutions have added in recent years).

The ESSC conducted our first greenhouse gas inventory in 2008. An update last year revealed that during the intervening two years the Mount had reduced its total greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 20 percent, from 18,881 metric tons carbon dioxide equivalents (MTCDE) to 15,569 MTCDE.

As part of its strategic plan goals and objectives for 2008–09, the Mount adopted an initiative to implement sustainable practices wherever possible. Since we have a very modest endowment (below $50 million) and a relatively small enrollment (approximately 2,000 full-time equivalents), operating resources to accomplish sustainability work have been scarce. Nevertheless, the university—the second-oldest Catholic higher education institution in the United States—has placed a real emphasis on sustainability, trying to be as green as possible.

During the past five years, the Mount has built a new geothermal residence hall, added geothermal to a newly renovated fine arts center, and moved from a coal-fired to a natural gas-fired central steam plant. The university is opportunistic when it fits us; we make things work financially when we can. This approach requires having a plan with sustainable projects already identified, and the financial flexibility and capacity to take advantage of opportunities as they arise. We have done a pretty thorough job of identifying and quantifying the costs pertaining to our sustainability needs. We know those projects that will give us the best return on investment; the greatest challenge is finding the major capital funding needed.

To date, the Mount has not found performance contracting financially attractive. Rather, our approach will continue to be a combination of using operating cash when available, addressing smaller projects using short-term lease financing when practical, and incorporating Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) concepts in all new building and renovation projects.

Interestingly, most of the LEED evaluation effort and general attention seems to focus primarily on new construction. However, smaller institutions like ours perform far more than they get credit for in terms of building renovation and retrofitting work that reduces their carbon footprint. After all, if you already have a solid structure, what's more sustainable than using an existing facility and improving upon it? 

Developing an Action Plan

To achieve the ACUPCC's ambitious goal of zero net greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050 with our limited financial resources, the ESSC developed the climate action plan, which lays out a strategy for reducing and eliminating greenhouse gas emission sources over the next four decades (see sidebar, "Routes to Reduced Emissions"). The plan's strategy proposes to eliminate, reduce, or offset emissions through improvements in energy efficiency, renewable energy production, and campus cultural change. Over the past three years the university has undertaken the following initiatives.

A mock-up of the solar farm at Mount St. Mary's University

A mock-up of the solar farm at Mount St. Mary's University

The high-efficiency natural gas boiler

The high-efficiency natural gas boiler

Energy efficiency

  • Replaced coal boiler with a high-efficiency natural gas boiler. Funding for this $440,000 project came from the university's operating budget. Heating costs for the first full fiscal year of the new system actually decreased by more than 10 percent, resulting in more than $100,000 in savings to the university. While we initially thought that replacing the coal boiler might add to our heating costs, preliminary data suggest that recent improvements to our steam-line infrastructure have reduced overall consumption and cost.
  • Completed a new dormitory building that uses geothermal heating and cooling, a system that cost approximately $310,000 more than a conventional one. Based on a 53,000-square-foot building, the geothermal system will save the university an estimated $19,000 annually in heating and cooling costs, meaning the payback period will be about 16.3 years.
  • In several existing buildings, replaced old, leaky underground steam pipes; installed newer, more efficient, decentralized furnaces and water heaters; and replaced older lighting fixtures and incandescent bulbs with higher-efficiency T-8 or T-5 compact fluorescent bulbs as well as LED (light-emitting diode) lighting.
  • Upgraded vehicle fleet with smaller, lower horsepower, and more fuel-efficient models, including several hybrid vehicles.
  • Adopted an Energy Star policy for purchasing fuel-efficient appliances and equipment.
  • Upgraded energy management control systems, including installation of occupancy sensors in many locations around campus to reduce lighting demand.
  • Partially shut down buildings during summer and winter breaks.
  • Replaced old motors with variable-flow drives in the Terrace dormitory renovation project.
  • Installed energy-efficient elevators in all renovation and new construction projects.

Renewable energy production

  • Incorporated geothermal heating and cooling into a major renovation of the century-old fine arts center. This added about $185,000 to the cost of renovations, but was partially offset by decommissioning 400 feet of aging and inefficient underground steam lines, which would have cost $150,000 to replace. Annual savings for heating and cooling the 10,000 square feet of space served by the geothermal system is about $3,600. The payback period is 9.7 years when we factor in the cost differential between installing the geothermal system and replacing the steam lines.
  • Added acreage to the conservation reserve and enhancement program and to conservation easements.
  • Restored riparian buffer zones.
  • Planted additional trees on campus.

Campus cultural change

  • Adopted use of green cleaning products and equipment.
  • Installed a trail on the east campus for biking and walking.
  • Replaced Styrofoam dining hall carryout containers with biodegradable containers.
  • Focused on campus staff to encourage them to carry the sustainability torch continually (see sidebar, "A Can-Do Campus Culture").

Major Initiatives Reduce Greenhouse Gas

A Can-Do Campus Culture

To reach its ambitious goal of achieving climate neutrality by 2050, Mount St. Mary's University will continue to make sustainability an integral part of its campus culture. We realize that students come and go-and they bring energy and excitement to these initiatives-but we need the continuity from our employees, including everyone from the president to the custodians. This has to be something that interests them and something they're committed to. If the links in the process are strong, you can make great gains in sustainability despite limited financial resources.

Initiatives, some of which are already under way, to promote a high degree of energy awareness include discussions and seminars on sustainability and formal incorporation of leadership in sustainability across the curriculum. One student-led effort known as RATS (Recycle All That Stuff) occurs at the end of the academic year and encourages students to donate furniture or other items to charities so things aren't simply thrown away. This is one way we've tried to reduce the waste stream. Since community service is part of the Mount's curriculum, we provide incentives in the form of college credit for students who participate in this recycling effort and other energy-saving activities.

The environmental stewardship and sustainability committee's greenhouse gas inventory quantifies carbon dioxide emissions by source to track the university's progress toward climate neutrality. These data reveal that the university has reduced its emission of carbon dioxide equivalents by 17 percent since signing the ACUPCC in 2007. Some of this reduction can be attributed to less-costly initiatives, such as partial heating, cooling, and lighting shutdowns during vacation breaks. But, much of it is the result of major upgrades to the campus energy infrastructure, including partially replacing campus steam distribution lines and installing geothermal heating and cooling in two major campus buildings, as described earlier.

Of the recent infrastructure changes, replacing the coal boiler with a new natural gas boiler has probably contributed the most to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Burning coal in our steam plant was a least-cost alternative for fuel, but it resulted in a huge carbon footprint. The replacement boiler had been on our unfunded projects wish list for some time. It was only after the state of Maryland began citing us for violations that our need to implement new technology became paramount and our love-hate relationship with coal finally came to an end.

Last year we transitioned to the efficient natural gas-fired steam plant that significantly reduced our carbon footprint and improved operating efficiency—at a capital cost we could afford. It was a financial struggle at the time, but we avoided having to borrow any of the funds used to complete the project, paying for everything with internally generated reserve funds.

The Mount funds projects such as the boiler replacement when the need and the opportunity arise. The university's division of business and finance has a small budget dedicated to energy-reduction activities, but our comprehensive approach to these types of projects is part of our deferred maintenance strategy. As we consider renovation and repair, we are constantly asking ourselves how we can do things in a more sustainable way.  

Partnering to Pare Down

The newly renovated Delaplaine Arts Center

The newly renovated Delaplaine Fine Arts Center

Mount St. Mary's University participates in two collaborative activities that are generating quantifiable reductions in energy consumption.

Joint recycling program. This program, launched in spring 2006, enjoys broad support from the campus community. Every week the university recycles approximately two tons of plastic, aluminum, paper, and cardboard. We donate recyclable plastic, aluminum, and paper to a local charity, the Adams Rescue Mission. Donations support its own (rather than a commercial) recycling operation, the results of which provide homeless shelters as well as employment opportunities for people recovering from substance abuse.

Through this partnership, the Mount is reducing its impact on the environment as well as assisting the community, activities consistent with the university's commitment to the principles of Catholic social teaching.

Working with the rescue mission, the Mount recycles approximately 12 tons of paper and 6 tons of plastic bottles and cans per year, resulting in an annual cost savings of approximately $5,000 to the university. In addition, we save approximately $13,000 per year by recycling cardboard through our primary waste contractor, Waste Management Inc. The university spent only about $22,000 to set up the recycling program five years ago; expenditures since then have been minimal.

RecycleMania. Over the past four years, we've participated in RecycleMania, an annual waste reduction competition among more than 600 colleges and universities throughout the United States and Canada.

The Mount competes in the "Per Capita Classic" division, in which campuses strive to collect the largest combined weight of paper, cardboard, bottles, and cans per individual in the campus population. Last year the Mount placed 116th out of 346 institutions, with 13.65 pounds per person of recyclables collected. This represented a 12 percent increase over our 2009 results.

RecycleMania is a student-directed event and requires no resources beyond those used in day-to-day recycling operations, so the competition promotes waste reduction at no additional cost to the university.

We'll continue to look for such opportunities that can have a sizable impact at low cost. These interactive, hands-on projects can motivate students and staff to maintain momentum in reducing our carbon footprint—while generating enough energy to share.

MICHAEL MALEWICKI is vice president for business and finance, Mount St. Mary's University, Emmitsburg, Maryland. DAVE COHILL, assistant to the vice president for business and finance, contributed to this article.