Tuesday, July 28, 2009

More & less: A greener future at Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through improved energy efficiency, reduction of waste, alternative fuels, innovation and education.

BLACKSBURG -- Virginia Tech senior Angie De Soto smiled as she recalled her first Environmental Coalition meeting. In spring 2006, she walked into a room in Tech's Holden Hall to find about 12 students sitting in a circle and talking about the environment. They spoke about plans to build a wind turbine and the importance of starting a paper recycling program at Tech. Subsequent meetings that spring followed the same pattern: few students, few resources, plenty of enthusiasm.

"We discussed a lot of things, but the rubber never hit the road," De Soto said. "We were doing good things, but they were very small, not reaching out to the student body. Nobody knew what the EC was."

With those early experiences in mind, De Soto said she gets excited when she walks around campus now and overhears students talking about improving energy efficiency or expanding recycling at Tech. The coalition's listserv now includes more than 1,200 students. Meetings for the student group typically attract more than 60.

A student leader on several green initiatives, De Soto's e-mail gets clogged with questions from students about recycling or with comments such as, "I'm walking around Squires and I'm seeing incandescent bulbs. Why?"

That growing student awareness and interest in the university's effects on the environment has translated into several campus efforts the past three years, such as energy efficient lighting, the rebirth of a recycling program and trayless dining halls.

Larry Bechtel, the university's recycling coordinator, credits students with calling attention to sustainability issues and the administration with hearing them.

The push for expanding recycling on campus reversed a trend that saw it plummet earlier this decade because of budget reductions. It's up so much this year that Bechtel established an on-campus collection site to decrease trips to the county recycling facility.
Rick Johnson, Tech's director of housing and dining services, credits students with initiatives such as food composting and eliminating trays in the dining halls.

"We made a major commitment to sustainability really two years ago," Johnson said. "And it's not that we were unfamiliar with sustainability, but it wasn't in a priority list. It wasn't our top priority. ... It's become one of their [the students'] top priorities, and because it has it became our top priority."

A document committing the university to make sustainability a top priority for years to come will likely be voted on by the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors when it meets June 1. A climate action commitment resolution and campus sustainability plan passed through the university council last month. Both need only the board's approval before becoming official.

"The commitment statement, that's really where the action is," said John Randolph, a professor who chaired the committee that created both documents. "Once the board accepts it, it will be university policy. But the plan itself goes beyond that, and the attempt was to identify what I call prescriptive measures, that is, actions that can be taken to achieve the goals of the commitment. They're kind of ideas, not policies. We see this plan as a living document."

If approved, the commitment outlined in the plan will be the university's biggest accomplishment so far, said De Soto, who served on the committee that drafted both documents.
"Yeah, we can say we're doing all these things, but if we aren't physically on paper and in part committed to becoming a sustainable campus, it's all going to be this disjointed. ... The commitment took us over the line. It took us from small, uncoordinated action to institutional commitment and accountability."

While the plan and commitment are separate, they complement one another and share goals of decreasing the university's greenhouse gas emissions through improved energy efficiency, reduction of waste, alternative fuels, innovation and education. Scientists have connected greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, produced by the burning of fossil fuels, with global warming.

De Soto said there was initial disappointment that Tech President Charles Steger didn't sign the American Colleges & Universities Presidents Climate Commitment when students approached him about it in December 2007. The document has been signed by more than 600 university presidents, including 15 in Virginia. But when Steger explained that he would rather the university make its own plan, with input from students, rather than sign a commitment that he didn't know it could fulfill, they saw it as an opportunity.

The committee to draft the commitment and plan began its work in April 2008. The members' efforts produced a 104-page plan to accompany a commitment that lists 14 goals, including an annual report card and the establishment of a school of sustainability. The group spent much of the spring semester presenting the plans to different university groups and moving it through the governance system.

While it was a lot of work, Randolph thought it was worth it and a more effective way of supporting sustainability than simply getting Steger to sign a national commitment.
"We're in a better position to really do something because we've gone through this process of kind of engaging the university in it," he said.

Goals for expanded recycling and reliance on alternative transportation as well as a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions are laid out in phases so progress can be measured and the university can stay on target. The ultimate goal is for Tech to cut its carbon emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

The plan also takes into account the potential benefit energy savings could have on the university's bottom line. Electricity costs at Tech increased from $8.2 million in fiscal year 2004 to $12.6 million in 2008. Addressing that problem will take a combination of innovative ideas, small sacrifices and simple education.

While the plan puts a lot of faith in innovation for long-term results, the university is already seeing savings from seemingly simple measures. By setting a thermostat to 68 degrees this winter the university saved nearly $200,000 over a period of less than two months. Steam output from Tech's boilers was reduced 15 percent. A similar measure to keep buildings at 74 degrees during warm months is expected to produce more savings.

Other moves won't come so easily. While the university has built more efficient steam tunnels and installed equipment to decrease the toxins emitted by the boilers at its steam plant, the burning coal still emits tons of carbon dioxide into the air each year. For Tech to reach its long-term greenhouse gas emission goals, the university will have to change its heating system, not something that's financially feasible in the short term.

"For the coal boilers, we anticipate they will have served their life by 2025 and we'll begin phasing them out after that," Randolph said. "So, you know, again, that's an example of prospective action, things we could do but we haven't necessarily committed to taking that action."

Randolph, who has taught at Tech for 30 years, said he's seen spates of environmentalism -- brought on by an energy crisis or short-lived political popularity -- come and go among students over the years. But he thinks the current movement will continue to grow and allow Tech to stay focused on sustainability well into the future.

"I think the stars have aligned a little bit," he said. "We've seen energy prices up, we seem to have a high level of agreement that climate change is happening and we need to do something about it. ... Things are moving in a way like never before. And we're seeing also that despite the fact that our economy is in the tank, the investment the government is making through the stimulus or whatever is targeted at this area of sustainable development."

Randolph described Tech's plan for reaching sustainability goals as three pronged: operations and infrastructure changes, academic programs and education and university culture.
De Soto is satisfied that the third prong has developed enough to move Tech forward as a national leader in the movement.

"Tech is not any kind of leader right now," she said. "We have a lot to do. But, at the same time, we really have a lot of people moving in a lot of different directions. ... I think that we're ahead of a lot of campuses in terms of internal support because we took a lot of time to build that kind of support."


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