Smarter Living: Schools
The Rise of Green Campuses
Photo: NatShots Photography/Flickr
Georgia Tech Memorial Garden
University application season is upon us and if the school of your dreams (or your child’s dreams) is a forward-thinking, earth-friendly institution—complete with an organic dining hall, LEED-certified green buildings, and a commitment to reducing global warming pollution—take heart. While many of the greenest campuses in the country are found at the elite liberal arts schools in the East and at colleges on the historically green West coast, other schools might surprise you with their sustainability.
From party schools and football powerhouses to colleges that barely merited a green ranking a few years ago, schools throughout the states are embracing sustainability. Not just in the hearts of students, but in the very backbones of the institutions themselves – in their buildings, power supplies, curriculum, food service and even their precious endowments.
According the Sustainable Endowments Institute, which rates some 300 colleges in its annual Green Report Card, more than three-quarters of the schools they surveyed employ a full-time sustainability officer. And 95 percent have a formal sustainability committee, up from just 40 percent four years ago. Today’s colleges view sustainability as a key to their educational mission, a money-saver, and part of their responsibility to students and the surrounding community.
Southern Beau: Georgia Tech
Among the 18 top-ranked schools in the Princeton Review’s Green College Honor Roll this year was Georgia Tech, a southern institution perhaps better known for football and engineering prowess than sustainability.
“We’re trying to turn that around,” says Marcia Kinstler, Georgia Tech’s director of sustainability. Her position was officially created just a few years ago, but the university traces its commitment to sustainability back to 1994, when a green ethic was incorporated into the school’s strategic and master plans. “Our campus was about to double in size, and we knew it had to be done sustainably,” says Kinstler.
The school, located in urban Atlanta, has retrofitted about 64 buildings to be more energy and water efficient, saving an estimated $7 million. All new construction and renovation on campus must meet LEED-Gold standards, and a proposed net-zero energy building, which will house energy-efficiency researchers, is scheduled to be completed by 2012. In fact, Mewborn Field, home to Georgia Tech’s Lady Jackets softball team, is the first sports facility in the United States to achieve LEED for New Construction (LEED NC) Gold certification. So there’s no contradiction between sports prowess and greener practices.
The school is also home to the world’s largest rooftop solar array, uses 100 percent green cleaners, incorporates local and organic foods in its dining halls, and offers more than 100 courses involving sustainability across all disciplines. “It’s hard to graduate without taking at least one of them,” says Kinstler.
Powering Up: The University of Washington
In Seattle, the University of Washington is transforming its campus to become part of the electric grid of the future. UW will be part of the Pacific Northwest Smart Grid Demonstration Project, the nation’s most extensive test ground for smart grid technology, which promises a more efficient, stable, and cost-effective electric supply.
The university spends roughly $10 million each year on electricity. All that energy use is monitored by just 5 meters on a campus which spans hundreds of urban acres and includes 178 buildings. “We don’t know how much each building is using, and that does frustrate our ability to manage,” says UW’s Norm Menter, the project manager coordinating design and construction of the university’s smart grid infrastructure.
The new system involves installing smart electric meters in 138 campus buildings, which will monitor energy use and deliver real-time data to a centralized hub. Control systems that operate building heating, ventilation and lighting systems will also be upgraded and connected to the same hub. Customized software will analyze the energy data along with signals from the regional power supplier, and will adjust building operations to ensure the energy is used optimally – consuming less energy during peak hours, for example, or powering down much of the campus when school is not in session.
“Because of the academic calendar, there are weeks when essentially, nobody’s home,” says Menter. “Currently we can’t visit 178 buildings, make changes, and then a week later turn it all back on. But with an automated solution this becomes cost-effective.”
Students will have a chance to participate directly in the smart grid, too. Some 500 dorm rooms are being outfitted with Energy Hubs, devices that monitor energy use from plug points and display it on a touchscreen dashboard. Students can power down their dorm rooms with the touch of a button if they’re leaving town for the weekend, program a noisy fridge to shut down in the wee hours of the morning, or even turn appliances off and on remotely through the web. (See “Smarter Grids for Smarter Cities” for more on the Pacific Northwest Smart Grid project.)
On the Rebound: Lafayette College
“We’re doing this because it’s smart to do, and it’s the right thing to do,” says Mitchell Wein, vice president of finance and administration and chair of the sustainability committee at Pennsylvania’s Lafayette College, which vaulted from a D- in 2008 to a respectable B in this year’s Green Report Card. “Many of these things have a payback. They’re financially prudent. And we recognize that we need to be good stewards of our beautiful campus and our community.”
Students at Lafayette, a college of about 2,400 students in Easton, PA, have been a major driver of the school’s new commitment to sustainability. “Honestly, when I first got here I was not impressed,” says senior Jennifer Bell, a geology major who helped institute a composting program and an organic community garden on campus. “But that enabled me and other students to make change. We jumped in with the help of some great faculty to create these programs. I have personally benefitted and learned way more than any class could teach me.”
On the administrative side, Lafayette boosted its ratings by adopting a campus energy policy and signing the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment to reduce global warming pollution. The college also plans to renovate its quad, removing two roadways and turning them into walking paths. “We’re making progress, but we’re not satisfied with a B,” says Wein. “We want to do more.”
What Students Are Looking For
Greener campuses are a draw for prospective students. According to a 2010 Princeton Review survey of some 12,000 college applicants and their parents, 66 percent said a school’s sustainability efforts would influence their decision to apply or attend. Nearly one-quarter said that the greenness of a school would have a big impact on that decision.
Tomas Leon, a third-year environmental engineering major at Georgia Tech, looked closely at green rankings when he applied for college, choosing Georgia Tech over other green universities in part because of its location. “This region is sort of behind the curve, if you compare it to places like Seattle,” says Leon, who also heads the student government’s sustainability committee. “But because of our geographic location, what we do here has a ripple effect on the surrounding community.”
Georgia Tech’s neighbor, the University of Georgia in Athens, might be one example of that influence. The school raised itself from a D in the 2008 Green Report Card to a solid A- this year. If that’s not impressive enough, UGA is also, according to the Princeton Review, the number one party school in the nation.
last revised 8/22/2011