Part I: The Green Campus
Sustainability Is a Group Project
- By Dian Schaffhauser
- Jun 02, 2009
At Harvard, small grassroots sustainability projects eventually led to an ambitious greenhouse gas emissions target and campus-wide climate action plan. Photo by: Jodi Hilton/Corbis
If you're at a school where the only green action you're seeing is the annual seeding of the commons, don't despair. In the world of higher education, even the most ambitious sustainability plans often begin with tiny steps taken by individual departments.
Michael Crowley, a program manager for Environmental Health & Engineering (EH&E) and former assistant director of the Harvard (Mass.) Green Campus Initiative, explains that going for small wins through grassroots projects "creates a level of confidence that can get the attention of the president."
In fact, when Harvard implemented its program eight years ago, there were only three Green Campus Initiative staff members. In those early days, Crowley was managing a fund for investment in conservation projects. But, "We were having trouble getting anybody to participate and take money from the fund. There was zero interest," he recalls. By the time he left in June 2008, however, the staff had grown to 20. "We had just gotten [Harvard] President Drew Faust to sign on to a really ambitious greenhouse gas emissions target, and Harvard had developed its own climate action plan."
In between the founding of the program (recently renamed the Harvard Office for Sustainability) and a celebration that attracted 15,000 people crammed into Harvard Yard and featured former alumnus Al Gore as a speaker, dozens of programs were tested, tweaked, refined, and expanded—from composting kitchen waste, to hiring students in each dorm or house to run their own conservation programs and influence peers to change their behaviors.
One project Crowley worked on involved taking used cooking oil from Dining Services (which typically paid to have someone haul it away) and, instead, using the oil as biofuel to power campus trucks. "That involved two departments that typically don't work together," Crowley adds, pointing to a new fact of life regarding sustainability on campus: Any given project may involve the collaboration of multiple groups that have not worked together in the past. "We really see sustainability as, by its nature, an interdisciplinary endeavor requiring new collaboration across campus," he explains. "We see the sustainability team being comprised of people who are experts in their own fields, coming together around new questions."
And that's where the creation of a sustainability office comes into play. "It's generally a good idea to have an individual on board who is responsible for these collaborations; a single point person," Crowley says. "We're starting to see such new posts—sustainability director positions—created on campuses." He notes that "At EH&E, we can take on that role for campuses. That's what I was doing at Harvard for six years."
Get Everyone on the Bus
On the highly decentralized campus of the University of Michigan, that coordinating role is handled by the Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute. Andrew Horning, managing director of the institute, describes it as "a conduit; a connector across campus. A lot of activity gets implemented at the local level. When the university is trying to say what it's doing for sustainability, people point in a lot of different directions."
Current efforts include Climate Savers, a national organization with a campus chapter that promotes green computing practices. Then there's Planet Blue, a campus-wide campaign that encourages the community to perform simple acts to conserve utilities and increase recycling. The Planet Blue campaign sends out SWAT-style teams that go into buildings and ferret out ways to make the edifices more energy-efficient. For instance, hidden in the basement recesses of the president's building, one team found a server that had to be cooled 24 hours a day. Horning reports that simply by moving it to a different location, the university saved a remarkable amount of energy. He also notes that there are between 30 and 50 student groups on campus with environmental interest, each wanting the support of the campus administration.
To coordinate their efforts, the Graham Institute put together the Student Sustainability Initiative, led by students themselves, to bring groups together for roundtable discussions.
And there are plenty of areas for research, which means more collaboration.
"These [sustainability] issues are so complicated," Horning points out. "A [campus] policy person can't execute unless he or she is talking to a science person." So, to better facilitate communication across departments and schools, one of the first projects the institute undertook was the development of two databases: one to inventory sustainability research on campus, the other to track courses that touch on the topic in some way (which in 2007, numbered about 400).
To kick-start collaboration, the institute dips into a research funding pool of about $600,000. The only stipulation is that the sustainability research must involve participants from more than a single discipline. One project, for example, is looking at the future of mobility in urban centers and involves faculty from IT, business, and urban planning. Still, U Michigan—and other universities like it—have no easy answers at present. "We're growing," says Horning. "New buildings are constantly being built, and the hospital system is growing by leaps and bounds. When you're in the process of continually adding more stuff, even though you're trying to make it efficient, the net result is either a flat line or increasing energy usage or environmental impact—that is, unless you make some sort of quantum leap, such as a shift to 100-percent renewable power. But that's just not feasible at this point in time."
Green: The New Campus Color
That's not to say sustainability efforts won't have impact. At a minimum, they make the drive to reduce energy consumption more and more compelling. Besides, such efforts place you in good company: The number of campuses now pursuing conservation programs is growing rapidly. That hasn't always been the case, however.
Jane-Ellen Miller, SunGard Higher Education vice president for the southern region, observes that a year or two ago, "I didn't hear any college or university president talking about sustainability. It isn't a core competency, after all. But now, constituencies are demanding it, and that includes everyone from students on the one end, to state and county funders on the other."
Even so, she points out (in concert with Horning at U Michigan) that campus-wide green initiatives often are instigated only when a new building is going up or an existing building is being extensively renovated. Those are useful efforts, she concedes, but conservation doesn't have to begin or end there. "If you can turn off a PC for at least seven straight hours," Miller claims, "there's a $44 savings per machine, per month." She adds that pursuing that type of effort doesn't have to cost the institution a dime. It may simply mean tapping into features already built into the hardware or software in use.
What it doesn't have to be, she insists, is a "resource-intensive project." Now, as before, Miller says, budgetary considerations are driving a lot of energy savings efforts on campus. "Everyone is dealing with funding that's decreasing. We're trying to show CIOs, who are thought leaders on campus, that they can get in front of this."
"Getting in front" may require IT leaders to step out from behind their data centers and advocate for a campus-wide sustainability initiative that gets multiple departments to share what they're doing. As U Michigan's Horning points out, the entire effort begins by giving people a means to participate in the campus greening efforts. "Create the forum," he advises. "Allow people to voice their opinions, so you can start determining what's most important to the community. Let them say, 'OK, I can identify opportunities in the areas where I'm the expert.'"
IT-Powered Ways to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions
SunGard Higher Education consultants recently held brainstorming sessions on the campuses of some of their client institutions, in order to share ways to help conserve energy, reduce the campus carbon footprint, and lower operating expenses.
- Use servers as heaters. Because servers generate a lot of heat all by themselves, consider not heating the server room in the cold months. Monitor the room to check temperature levels.
- Conserve PC power. Implement power conservation software for all PCs on campus.
- Go LCD. Replace monitors with those that have lower-energy LCD screens.
- Eliminate desktop printers. Not only will this save energy, but it will greatly decrease the amount of printing—and paper waste—that routinely takes place on a campus. If users have to walk to a printer in a central location to pick up a printed sheet, they are more likely to opt to read the information on-screen.
- Implement pay-to-print programs in your computer labs. You don't have to charge students for every sheet they print; but by simply placing a limit on the tally and charging fees for overage, your campus will make students pay more attention to what they're printing.
- Cash in on copper cabling. Many colleges removed their copper wiring when they upgraded their infrastructures to a newer standard. Often, the old copper cabling is parked in a storage area; recycling the now highly valuable copper can result in a nice fat check for the institution, if it's taken to the right vendor. The move will also reduce storage.
- Replace older computers with newer, more powerful, and more energy-efficient machines. On average, a refreshed machine can result in a 20 percent decrease in power consumption, resulting in significant cost savings and environmental benefit. Recycle the old machines responsibly.
- Remind employees to turn off their computers when they go home for the day, or implement a program that forces the automatic shutdown of PCs left on after business hours.
Dian Schaffhauser is a Nevada City, Calif.-based freelance writer; she covers technology and business for a number of publications. This article first appeared in the April 2009 issue of Campus Technology.