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From Green Buildings to Living Communities

RMI Takes the next step in campus sustainability
By Cam Burns

RMI’s whole-system approach has the potential to transform the idea of campus greening from single projects to integrative communities. This leap could provide a model for the next generation of leaders. College campuses have long been hotbeds of social change. The Civil Rights Movement, the Free Speech Movement, human rights causes, and numerous anti- war and social justice movements can all trace their roots—at least in part—to campuses across the United States and abroad. And the persuasive power of dedicated, idealistic young students can often be harnessed to bring about the greatest social change.

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Today, many college campuses are focusing on a new kind of societal transformation by leading the green movement and doing what they can to address environmental problems. What used to be the occasional recycling program or an inclination toward organic food has become a full-fledged international movement that many observers believe will revitalize communities, introduce new areas of academic study, alter traditional career choices, and revolutionize education itself.

Even a casual scan of educational institutions’ green activities shows there are thousands of efforts underway in nearly every state involving schools of every type and size. The University of Monmouth in New Jersey, for example, recently put in the largest solar installation east of the Mississippi, saving the school $150,000 and reducing electricity demand by almost 500,000 kilowatt-hours a year. The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey installed one of the world’s largest closed- loop geothermal heating and cooling systems, an 18-kilowatt solar photovoltaic array, and a 200-kilowatt fuel cell. In 2005, students at U.C. Santa Barbara started an educational program that ultimately led to campus-wide lighting retrofits, the use of motion sensors, and the installation of more efficient heating and cooling systems, thereby reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 8,100 tons. The list is long and varied, but the green wave is rising.

RMI’s Work with Communities

Henry Ford once observed, “If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.” Rocky Mountain Institute has worked on sustainability as it relates to a variety of communities since 1984, when Senior Consultant Michael Kinsley cofounded a research and consulting practice based on the notion that engaging large subsets of people can be a powerful way to get energy and resource solutions adopted and implemented.

And, not surprisingly, colleges and universities have been prime candidates for the type of work RMI does. In 2002, the Institute assessed ways that Oberlin College could reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions. In 2005, Stanford enlisted RMI to help identify ways to reduce emissions at its two-mile-long Linear Accelerator Center. More recently, RMI has assisted the University of Hawaii, the University of Vermont, and Duke University with environmental sustainability and stewardship goals.

“In the past we’ve done individual [campus and community] projects oriented toward technical analysis,” Kinsley says. “Typically they’ve been one-offs of buildings or energy systems or something else; excellent projects, but we weren’t doing any whole-campus or whole-city jobs.”

Over the years, Kinsley has been pushing his practice toward working with the larger subset of a “sustainable human settlements.” His goal of larger community-oriented issues was recently given a boost when a foundation contacted RMI and enquired if the Institute could delve into college- and university-wide climate solutions, specifically in terms of campus operations, taking RMI’s work, Kinsley says, “to a whole new level.”

Tackling a Vast Set of Challenges

“Accelerating Campus Climate-Change Initiatives” sounds grandiose, but in reality, RMI’s campus climate initiative is—from the outside—rather straightforward. It’s about information, a sort of fact-finding and fact-sharing mission. Working with the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, RMI will build on foundational research that has already been published by various sustainability professionals at universities and the National Wildlife Federation’s growing Low-Carbon Campus Series.

Supported by a grant from an anonymous funder, Kinsley and Sally DeLeon, a Research Fellow on RMI’s Built Environment Team, spent the summer gathering stories from colleges and universities across the country on how their climate-change initiatives are unfolding and what obstacles the campuses have encountered. Throughout the fall and winter, they will be in the process of conducting deeper research with ten selected campuses. Next spring, they will publish their generalized findings as a web-based framework for whole-system climate action in campus operations. The stories include everything from wild successes to instructive failures. “To make this project genuinely informative, we need to understand failures as well as successes,” Kinsley notes. After visiting the selected schools this fall, Kinsley and DeLeon will conduct an RMI workshop with participants from all ten campuses to tease out the best ways to advance their climate-change initiatives.

The process may sound simple, but the two researchers say the issues are anything but. Colleges and universities can have Byzantine organizational structures that are often much more complex than corporate entities. Financing, split incentives, school culture, stranded assets, and faculty and staff buy-in create unique challenges that can be difficult for a school to overcome.

“For example, often one department is responsible for capital investments, while another runs operations and the two don’t necessarily work together,” Kinsley notes. “There’s no incentive for the capital budget manager to invest in building retrofits that’ll help the budget of the operations people. It’s just a dumb structural condition that nobody meant to create that becomes an institutional barrier. Those are the kinds of things we want to dig up.”

RMI Trustee and Oberlin College professor David Orr is quick to point out that one enormous barrier to change is the notion of changing curricula, which can threaten faculty jobs, budgets, and
fundamental school principles.

“The main architecture of the curricula is sacrosanct,” he says. “Conversations still don’t easily cross back and forth between disciplines. And anything that begins to threaten that structure dies a pretty quick and painful death.”

Moving the project forward will also involve a workshop and additional research, followed by the creation of “an overarching framework for accelerating campus climate-change initiatives” and offer it as a web-based report. “This RMI project focuses mainly on operations,” notes DeLeon. “But since all of these aspects have a lot of potential for synergy and cross-over, we will also learn about connections between operations and the other aspects and hopefully expose creative, innovative ways to make these connections and create solutions that address multiple aspects at once.”

What’s truly inspiring about this effort—all green campus initiatives, really—is its vast potential, especially in terms of education.

A Complete (and Completely) Powerful Education

As a professor of many years, Orr has developed some remarkable notions of just how far the green campus movement could go. In fact, Orr says that if the green campus movement is followed to its logical end, it would change society entirely.

At present, he points out, students and faculty are thinking of the green campus movement in terms of physical flows: for example, how much waste a campus produces and how much energy it needs.
“But that’s only a means to an end,” he says. “The real end is about changing the way people think, not just about resource flows through the places in which we purport to be thinking. I could imagine a university having one subject: carbon. Just follow the carbon. And when you think about it, that’s a big doorway. You get into the realm of carbon and it would take you to English literature, it would take you to poetry, certainly to chemistry, it would get you to economics, it would get you really quickly to philosophy.”

Changing the way people think about educational topics might “sound flaky as hell,” Orr says, but it also could turn education on its head, which in turn could change society by changing what’s important in society. The thinking is that by changing what people learn in college (and other educational settings) you change what they do in life and how they respond to the world around them.

Even if Orr thinks his ideas are slightly radical, all indications suggest that they’re not far off at all. Sustainability-related efforts are already turning curricula upside-down at many schools. Graduate students at the University of Virginia’s business school are studying ways to use waste rice husks to generate power in India. Vermont’s Middlebury College recently established a grant program for “sustainable study abroad.” And architecture schools across the country are offering “green building” courses of every type. In 2007, Arizona State University created the country’s first school of sustainability, and now offers degrees in “sustainability” from the bachelor to Ph.D. level.

Many students are even pledging to take what they’ve learned out into the real world, as a group of George Washington University students did last May when they pinned green ribbons on their
graduation robes and caps and signed a commitment to bring sustainability principles to their careers.

“My personal thought is that the biggest changes are yet to come,” says Ken Bagstad, a Ph.D. candidate in ecological economics at the University of Vermont. “As more and more students from all fields, beyond the traditional environmental studies/science majors (e.g., engineering, business, etc.) become leaders in greening their campus, they’ll have the opportunity to ‘green revolutionize’ their professional fields. I envision that just as we’re now seeing incoming students use ‘greenness’ as a criteria to pick a college or university to attend, these same students will become a major force in transforming their professional worlds, using the skills and expectations they gained in their years participating in the green campus movement.”

The Enormous, Unexpected Benefits of Green Campuses

Colleges and universities starting down green paths are already finding huge advantages over their not-so-green competition. Some are experiencing increases in student applications because of their sustainability and climate initiatives.

“We have heard that students make a decision on where to go to school solely based on sustainability,” Dave Weil, University of California at San Diego’s director of building commissioning and sustainability recently told Climate Wire, a climate-change-oriented news service.

But that draw isn’t limited to big-name universities. In fact, DeLeon points out, smaller and lesser-known—even two-year—colleges can be leaders in sustainability-related fields.

Case in point: Butte College, a two-year community college in Northern California. That school recently won the National Wildlife Federation’s Chill-Out Award, aimed at celebrating campus-based initiatives, by delving heavily into energy efficiency. It is now on course to be carbon neutral by 2015. Butte College also recycles more than 75 percent of its waste and runs the largest community college transportation system in California. Community College Times, the biweekly newspaper of the American Association of Community Colleges, recently called the school “one of the national leaders in sustainability, and one that can serve as a model for community colleges.”

Still others are pulling in more funding from donors, and others are winning funding from government programs that support renewable energy. Some are attracting more promising students, and many are drawing top-level faculty members.

“If I were to give a list of the benefits that came about because of the Lewis Center now, most of them were things I couldn’t have fully anticipated at all when we started the project in 1995,” says Orr of the Adam Lewis Environmental Center at Oberlin. “I would never have anticipated, for example, that a lot of money would’ve come in long after we had the thing paid for. I wouldn’t have anticipated the bump in enrollments, which continues to this day. We have students come here just because ecological design is part of our curriculum. At the last U.S. Green Building Council meeting we went to, we had 42 alums at that meeting, all of whom were involved in the making of the Lewis Center. I wouldn’t have anticipated any of this, but opportunities feed on opportunities.”

Impacts Across the Board

As this issue of RMI Solutions Journal goes to press, 558 school presidents have signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, which is a voluntary agreement that their institutions will strive for carbon neutrality. Some schools that haven’t signed are actively working toward ambitious greenhouse-gas emissions reduction goals of their own. As Orr is quick to note, there are roughly 3,700 colleges and universities in the country with a buying power of around $20 billion a year.

“That’s a lot of clout,” he says. “If ecological design and carbon neutrality become the norm, that changes a lot of resource flows right away. And if colleges and universities begin to see themselves as catalytic agents in developing re-localized, self-reliant, solar-powered economies, if they become like the salt in the stew—agents of much larger change—you begin to see the makings of a very serious revolution. And I think that’s kind of where we’re headed, it’s just not as fast nor is it as thorough as it needs to be.”

Drawing students and donations is one thing, but changing the rules is something entirely different. RMI’s Built Environment Team experienced the power of green campus work in the early 2000s when the Institute helped design the University of Denver College of Law’s Frank H. Ricketson, Jr. Building.

The design included waterless urinals and other water conservation features. But when the state’s lead plumbing inspector read about the urinals in the newspaper, “He basically got up in arms and said ‘you’re not installing these on my watch,’” recalls Cara Carmichael, a Senior Consultant on RMI’s Built Environment Team. “He had never worked with them, he didn’t trust them to hold up, and he had about a dozen other excuses.”

But the law school had connections with the governor. The students rallied together and, with the help of several influential professors, got the governor to pressure the plumbing inspector to allow the urinals on a one-year trial basis to see how well they worked and if they would be appropriate for general use.

“So they were installed and they worked great and still work great,” Carmichael says. “Now, other buildings in Denver are using them. They were pretty much granted because of that building.”
Huge environmental benefits, fantastic educational opportunities, green campuses and communities—the benefits are too significant to ignore. Yet the movement is still experiencing fits and starts. Just like many companies, colleges and universities need to understand the full range of benefits—including important business benefits—that can be derived from reducing their carbon footprint. And according to DeLeon, this is one way that RMI’s involvement could spur fresh thinking about energy and carbon in campus operations.

That’s why we’re taking this on,” she says. “It’s similar to Amory Lovins’s old adage about the business sector: schools will either have to follow suit or lose competitive advantage.”

Cam Burns is RMI's Senior Editor
--Published Fall/Winter 2008

 
 
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