The drive for power

Environmental studies surge - But so do energy-busting buildings and Amenities

When Andrew Posner wants to make a fruit smoothie in the kitchen blender in his unconventional dorm, he does the natural thing - he hops on a bicycle to generate the power to run it.

California's rolling blackouts are no problem for Mr. Posner and other energy-efficient students living in Humboldt State University's Campus Center for Appropriate Technology in Arcata. A windmill, solar panels, a bio-diesel generator, and people like Posner power the place.

A decade ago, Humboldt's CCAT students celebrated energy independence by chopping power lines linking them to the state's power grid. But a few weeks ago, they reconnected to help the nowpower-short state by pumping energy back into the grid. During the day, the energy meter runs backwards - forward a little at night. Net result: no electric bill.

Then there's Oberlin College in Ohio, which has a brand new environmental center so stingy with energy that it also generates extra electricity from solar panels on its roof.

Both are great examples of campus energy frugality. And they form a nearly perfect misrepresentation of energy use on America's college campuses, which collectively are among the nation's worst energy hogs. Instead of getting more efficient as

technology has improved and consciousness has risen, the nation's campuses are no more efficient than in the 1980s and have, over all, become bigger power users in the past decade. With energy the second-biggest expense on campus after labor costs, it's one big reason tuition costs are rising.

"Colleges and universities are using quite a bit more energy than they did a decade ago," says Mike MacDonald, higher-education sector manager of the US Department of Energy's Rebuild America program in Oak Ridge, Tenn. "There are exceptions, and some schools are doing well. But, on average, it's worse than the private sector."

The 1990s saw notable campus energy projects, from retrofitting light bulbs to installing more-efficient fan motors and chillers - even geothermal systems that use the earth's natural temperature. "With the California problems, there is a heightened sense of the need for more energy-efficient operations," says Lander Medlin, executive vice president for the Association of Higher Education Facilities Officers.

But most of those gains have been offset by a building boom that has often not been so energy-efficient. And, while students have tuned in academically to environmental issues, a "more is better" ethic dominates when it comes to dorm-room appliances. Students pack their rooms with microwaves, computers, refrigerators, halogen lamps, hot plates, coffeemakers, TVs, stereos and other appliances.

In networked dorms, students leave their computers running around the clock so they can jump instantly onto the Internet. The same often holds true for school computer labs.

"We've gone many years without seeing a mindset in this country that was pro-conservation," says Walter Simpson, energy chief at the State University of New York at Buffalo. "These kids don't have any recollection of what it's like to sit in gas lines or turn thermostats down."

Indeed, though there are at least 1,100 environmental-studies programs nationwide, Noel Perrin, an adjunct professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., agrees it would be a mistake to judge higher education's commitment to energy efficiency from the college curriculum.

While students flock to ecology courses, there is little student involvement in energy saving on even the most energy-efficient campuses like the University of New Hampshire in Durham, or State University of New York at Buffalo.

"We tried dorm competitions to save energy, but they just fizzled after a while," says Adam Wilson, who graduated last year from UNH. "Nobody was interested."

SUV buildings

Such student apathy has roots in the gap between what colleges teach and what they do, says Thomas Kelly, director of sustainability programs at the University of New Hampshire. The Durham campus is among the top 5 percent of energy-efficient campuses, the Department of Energy reports.

"We can't achieve our educational mission unless we embody the values and principles we are teaching," says Mr. Kelly, who is trying to integrate institutional efforts with coursework. Mr. MacDonald of the DOE believes that most colleges won't really begin to change their energy-efficiency rating until they target the biggest energy waster of all: new energy-intensive buildings.

The 1990s was a decade of furious expansion on campus. Despite meeting higher insulation standards, new buildings - many of them science buildings packed with electronics and powerful air-handling equipment - have turned out to be the equivalent of SUV power guzzlers. Often, the inefficient buildings they replace remain in use.

As a result, America's college campuses expanded from 3.5 billion square feet in 1990 to about 4 billion square feet today, according to the Association of Higher Education Facilities Officers. During that period, energy use rose about 14 percent with today's national campus energy bill about $6.5 billion, Mr. MacDonald estimates. And still the building boom continues.

The University of Missouri at Columbia lists some 16 buildings or additions being designed or built. The school is adding 25 megawatts to its 40-megawatt power plant.

"We're maxed out right now," a spokesman says. The university has been working hard on energy saving, he says, through lighting retrofits, upgrading heating and cooling systems, and burning waste tires as fuel - which have won it awards.

Those efforts, however, are overshadowed by today's ambitious expansion program. Officials say the new buildings will need more juice, but boost overall energy efficiency.

That would be an improvement. Four years ago when Missouri got its awards, the then-12.9 million-square-foot campus ranked among the 10 heaviest energy users among 173 colleges and universities nationwide - as measured by BTUs of energy used per square foot - according to a DOE analysis.

A Potemkin Village?

Oberlin has won plaudits for its new Lewis Environmental Center. But it is now building a new $55 million science center that does not use most energy-saving and energy-creating features pioneered in Lewis. Such contradictions trouble many students and faculty. "We tried to factor energy-saving features into the science building and were told 'You can't do this in a science building,' " says Cheryl Wolfe-Cragin, Lewis's facilities manager.

Oberlin is also 90 percent reliant on fossil fuels, burning coal at its own power plant to generate 70 percent of its heat and 55 percent of its electricity, according to a draft campus-wide energy policy being debated by administrators and faculty.

"How will history judge Oberlin College?" the document muses. "Will the Lewis Center be a mere Potemkin Village, or will the institution that built it ... continue a commitment to doing what is ethically right, intellectually sound, and environmentally necessary?"

That's not to say a number of campuses are not trying. About 40 colleges and universities have partnerships with Rebuild America to improve energy efficiency in building projects on their campuses.

Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C., will soon rely on 56-degree groundwater to heat and cool more than 50 percent of its campus.

Other colleges are talking about cutting energy use in order to cut gas emissions. In February, 56 New Jersey college presidents signed a pact patterned after the Kyoto accord, which calls for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions to below 1990 levels. Since 1990, another 71 US institutions have signed the Talloires Declaration to do the same. In May, 42 college and university presidents signed a letter chastising President Bush for an energy policy that boosted energy-research funding by less than a percentage point.

But experts say creating a nation of power-miser campuses will require tougher steps:

* More incentives to save energy. At most public universities, energy savings are reclaimed by the state in the form of budget cuts.

* A shift from the reflexive tendency to prefer the cheapest bid on building projects, instead evaluating the long-term operating costs.

* A preference for energy contracts that promote less energy use - not just bulk power savings.

* A commitment to efficiency.

Mr. Simpson's SUNY Buffalo campus has won national recognition for otherwise unglamorous retrofits of fan motors and other building equipment that cost $17 million - but now save the university $9 million annually.

Yet even top-performing campuses like his can do better, Simpson says. He is circumspect about the spate of recent energy pledges.

"Sometimes I feel like we [at SUNY Buffalo] are a giant waste machine. So when we get the plaudits ... I don't know whether to be happy, flattered, or to despair, because the other campuses are even worse...."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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