Thought Leaders of Our Energy Future

Aug. 18, 2010

Energy initiatives in higher education are driving change

With respect to “going green” and thinking about new ways to use less fossil fuel, the next generation is where the thought leaders are. Why? Because they care more.

The next generation of engineers will have to live and work under the conditions that our generation created. These folks are committed and creative, so it makes sense that they are taking action. Below is a progress report on some of their activities and successes.

The green movement in higher education is motivated by the students, who are demanding their universities make progress. University and college presidents want to attract the best students, so green has become a prerequisite. With this type of motivation, over 650 college presidents have signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, which is a commitment to become carbon neutral by a specific date. Once this is signed, the leadership at a college must take specific actions, which then permeate throughout the institution’s operations. This type of top-down implementation is a good model as many green programs in the private sector may not have this level of support from the top level of management.

Another motivator for higher education institutions is that they are supposed to produce graduates who can get hired. Thus, today there are many new academic programs that focus on sustainability as the key curriculum. The Association of Sustainability in Higher Education began in 2005 with 40 organizations. In 2010, it has more than 1,000 schools.

Whether or not a college has an academic program for sustainability or is formally committed to becoming carbon neutral, the success stories below highlight some of the progress.

The University of California has many green programs, but I want to mention just one building that diverts 89% of its trash from the landfill! That is correct, at Ellision Hall at the University of California at Santa Barbara, residents recycle almost everything – from cardboard to “techno trash” (cell phones, batteries) to all plastics. They even have a worm bin for composting. In fact, the UCSB students voted to raise their fees to become carbon neutral.

Arizona State University has implemented a real-time energy monitoring system called Campus Metabolism for each building. This technology enables competitions among dorms and even departments to see who is the most efficient. See this site for more info: http://cm.asu.edu/#

The close proximity of Colorado State University to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory has allowed for a unique collaboration. For decades, the two institutions have been improving technologies and applications for solar-powered buildings. They recently added 8,700 solar panels as part of a central plant that will save the university $6 million in energy costs over the next 20 years.

Oklahoma State University has implemented an energy and water conservation program that has saved over $11 million in three years. Most of the savings occur by turning equipment off when it is not needed. Everything from computers to vending machines to HVAC and lighting equipment is reviewed and adjusted for optimized operational hours. This type of program can require an attitude adjustment for some people, but the results are impressive with practically zero capital cost. Learn more here: http://www.okstate.edu/energy/

Harvard has a $12 million revolving green fund that provides upfront capital for projects that reduce Harvard’s environmental impact. The savings from the projects are used to pay back the loan within five years. Departments can basically borrow from the fund to finance their green initiatives without impacting the department’s budget. Learn more here: http://green.harvard.edu/loan-fund

Training the next generation
Several academic programs stand out in their quest to train the next generation. Some colleges, such as Northland College in Wisconsin, focus on conservation and ecology. Other colleges market a multidisciplinary focus for students. For example, undergrads at the University of New Hampshire’s Global Environmental Change course meet with administrators to understand operations and activities to reduce greenhouse gases.

Emory University has offered curriculum-wide courses that demonstrate the interconnected role sustainability plays in society. Many other colleges participate in public-private partnerships or internships to allow students to get real-world experience. Southern Methodist University in Dallas offers a popular MBA program in sustainability. There are many other great programs that are not mentioned here, but the point is this: Colleges are responding to meet the needs of the real world.

In summary, there are a lot of good things going on at colleges. The energy – I mean excitement – is contagious. Take a look at your local college and you may get some great ideas that could apply to your building. If you work at an educational facility, look to your peers and non-peer buildings; if you are at a K-12 school, take a look at the local college.

Eric Woodroof, Ph.D., is the Chairman of the Board for the Certified Carbon Reduction Manager (CRM) program and a board member since 1999 of the Certified Energy Manager (CEM) Program. He is a strategic advisor, corporate trainer, keynote speaker, and founder of ProfitableGreenSolutions.com.

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