Monday, February 20, 2012

Reducing Energy Consumption at Educational Institutions - Some Success Stories

My undergraduate college, the small, public liberal arts University Montevallo - Solar Panels (1) of Montevallo, has embarked on a variety of exciting scientific projects, not the least of which is its new James Wylie Shepherd Observatory Complex (seen in the background of the image to the right). Piling innovation upon innovation, the observatory recently installed eight solar panels that will generate enough electricity to offset all energy use at the facility. The project "also includes the installation of an 800-gallon rainwater collection and purification system to serve as the primary water supply for the JWSO, and the phytoremediation of the soil using sunflowers and other suitable plants to extract a variety of pollutants." Furthermore, "the landscaping will showcase drought-resistant plant life indigenous to Alabama, and will include an area for fruit trees to benefit visitors to the site. The restrooms will feature self-composting toilets . . . ." The project was funded by the University of Montevallo Sustainability Committee, the UM Green Fund, the Student Government Association, and Legacy, Inc. (an environmental education corporation). When my day is so often filled with frustration over the state of the environment, I was excited to see that during such difficult economic times a small public college (often the first to receive budget cuts during economic downturns) remains committed to renewable energy and environmental responsibility. While the Solyndra's of the world may get all of the attention, small but significant steps are being made to promote and shift toward renewable energy all over the country - especially at educational institutions.

Carnegie Mellon University is currently in the midst of a three-week "Campus Conservation Nationals" (CCN) competition. The competition is the "first national competition aimed at motivating college students to reduce electricity and water consumption on their campuses." Carnegie Mellon has used the opportunity to organize a competition amongst dorms on campus to reduce energy usage, even establishing a website where students can check real-time electricity usage data. In the spirit of the X-prize, these types of events can harness the often irresponsible inspiring competitive spirit of college-age students to achieve positive environmental results.

K-12 educational institutions are getting in on the competitive approach to energy efficiency as well, saving energy as well as teaching children the value of renewable energy. In the U.S., these institutions spend over $8 billion a year on energy. The four week long Green Cup Challenge, which involves 116 schools across 22 states, has caused at least one school to cut its electricity consumption by 17% through "simple changes in behavior," such as changes to thermostats, shutting off computer monitors and lamps, installing skylights, and using timers on lighting systems. Other schools "have used the Green Cup Challenge to promote investments in renewable energy and efficiency projects that may have not been possible without the support of the Green Schools Alliance." As an example,

"After installing a number of energy efficient technologies, including a solar PV system, a 'bird-friendly' wind turbine, green roofs, and changing other energy habits, the Latin School of Chicago has seen a savings of $45,000 a year on their energy bills, and is expected to pay off its initial investment in less than 10 years."

So while presidential candidates wax idiotic poetic about environmental conspiracies and hoaxes, and think tanks engage in misinformation campaigns aimed at children in elementary schools, it is encouraging to see that our most important institutions of learning are not buying it. Even though students may continue to increase their consumption of energy drinks, it's great to see them cutting back on energy where it matters.

- Blake Hudson

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