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Painting the campus green

July 7, 2006 By Jennifer Weeks This article courtesy of Nature News.

Local universities adopt technologies to save energy and reduce pollution on campus.

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From mounting solar panels on rooftops to using biodiesel in vehicles, Boston-area campuses, and many others across the country, are trying to become more environmentally friendly. Locally, Tufts and Harvard are leading the way, while MIT's planned campuswide sustainable energy project announced a couple of months ago promises to step up its existing efforts.

Campus sustainability programs typically focus on waste management, transportation, and energy efficiency, but going green can encompass a variety of approaches. For example, schools may buy power generated from renewable fuels, better manage water use and water runoff, use sustainable construction materials, or buy locally grown foods.

A major university-consisting of thousands of students and faculty, dozens of buildings, and often its own transportation system-has an environmental footprint much like that of a similarly sized corporation or even a small town. For example, Harvard's greenhouse gas emissions in 2005 totaled more than 320,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, nearly the same amount generated by all of Staples Corporation's staff and facilities nationwide.

"Universities are future-oriented institutions and think about their commitments to citizenship, so it makes sense for them to look at their environmental impacts," says Sarah Hammond Creighton, manager of the Tufts Climate Initiative and author of Greening the Ivory Tower.

Quantitative nationwide assessments of the environmental impact of these initiatives haven't been done yet, partly because there are no uniform reporting standards. But there is little doubt that green programs are becoming part of campus culture. A 2001 survey of almost 900 U.S. colleges and universities by the National Wildlife Federation found that more than 60 percent were recycling various materials and working to reduce energy and water consumption.

"We applaud this work," says Norman Willard, a senior member of the climate change and energy team at the Environmental Protection Agency's regional Boston office. "Green campus programs are catalyzing action at their institutions by engaging staff, administrators, students, and faculty, and they are producing impressive environmental and energy results."

Campuses have been quick to take such actions partly because of promised financial savings. For example, a campaign launched last year to close fume hoods in Harvard Medical School labs when not in use is projected to save $120,000 per year in energy costs.

Bigger projects may come with added up-front costs but often pay for themselves over time in energy savings. For example, construction costs for energy-efficient "green" buildings are typically about 2.5 to 5 percent higher than conventional buildings. But according to one study conducted for Harvard by a U.K.-based consulting firm specializing in sustainable buildings, requiring such a standard on the planned Allston campus could reduce its heating and cooling load requirements by more than 50 percent, resulting in lower energy bills.

As the following snapshots indicate, sustainability is becoming a core value for Boston-area schools.

Tufts

In 1999, the Tufts Climate Initiative was created to help the university meet or beat the greenhouse gas emissions reduction target under the Kyoto Protocol (7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012). According to Creighton, Tufts has nearly reached this goal, which should translate into a 30 percent reduction of the school's projected emissions under a business-as-usual growth path.

To achieve this, Tufts added solar panels, solar-powered water heaters and other energy-efficient design features to several campus buildings. It buys its electricity from a supplier that uses mainly hydropower. Tufts has also installed campuswide energy-saving upgrades, ranging from improved cooling systems for computer data centers to high-efficiency fume hoods in laboratories.

Tufts is a member of the Chicago Climate Exchange, a forum where North American companies and organizations make voluntary (but legally binding) commitments to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and trade credits for these reductions. The university may sell some of its credits next year, though it won't make much money from them. Rather, Tufts's goal is to help shape a market-based approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

"Organizing our work around climate change gives us a very measurable focus," says Creighton. "The benefits are quantifiable, and most actions save money." As one example, she says improvements to the heating and ventilation systems at Tufts's Pearson chemistry complex paid for themselves in two years in lowered energy costs.

Harvard

With new buildings popping up on the Harvard campus in Cambridge and major construction planned in Allston over the next several decades, reducing the university's environmental impact will be a challenge. More buildings inevitably means more energy and resources used, so one approach for the Harvard Green Campus Initiative (HGCI), created in 2001, is to make the buildings themselves more environmentally friendly.

Three of Harvard's buildings have received rankings from the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, a four-level rating system that certifies energy-efficient, water-conserving buildings: the Harvard School of Public Health's Landmark Center headquarters, Radcliffe's Schlesinger Library, and the One Western Avenue graduate student housing center in Cambridge. Ten more Harvard projects are under consideration for similar rankings. One Western Avenue is 50 percent more energy efficient than what is required for conventional buildings.

Harvard also fills its campus diesel vehicles, such as the shuttle buses that run between Harvard Business School and Cambridge, with a blend of 80 percent diesel and 20 percent biodiesel at the university's own biodiesel fueling station in Allston. Harvard spent $60,000 to install the pumps, a sum it expects to recover in fuel cost savings within five years.

"We show that investing in sustainability makes business sense," says HGCI director Leith Sharp. According to HGCI, many energy efficient upgrades that it has recommended for campus buildings, such as lighting retrofits and irrigation meters, have paid for themselves in energy savings in as little as one to two years.

MIT

In 1998, an Environmental Protection Agency inspection team found more than 3,000 legal violations at MIT and fined the university $555,000. Since then, the university has worked to clean up its act. MIT recently achieved a 40 percent recycling rate, up from 5 percent in the 1990s, and has pledged that all new campus buildings will be designed to earn at least the second-highest LEED rating.

One current showpiece project is a storm-water management system at the new Stata Center that channels rainwater runoff from surrounding plazas through a nearby constructed wetland and uses the filtered water to flush toilets. The project reduces runoff of unfiltered storm water into the Charles River and fulfills half of the Stata Center's water demands, reducing MIT's city water usage by almost 750,000 gallons per year.

MIT green campus activities should get a major boost from the campuswide energy initiative proposed in May by a faculty panel. Along with big investments in energy research, the panel called on MIT to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to a level that is 32 percent below the business-as-usual growth rate by 2015. MIT expects to announce details for this project later this year.

This story is from Nature Network Boston. Read and post comments about this story here.

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