Washington U. sustainability woes

| Staff Columnist

On Jan. 14, Chancellor Wrighton unveiled a draft of Washington University’s “Strategic Plan for Environmentally Sustainable Operations” by e-mailing each and every one of us. Rarely do we receive such e-mails. The plan is comprehensive, but may be a bit incomprehensible to people who are not familiar with T12’s, chillers, steam loops and the like. Luckily, most unfamiliar things are hyperlinked to an explanation and any questions you do have can be sorted out by filling out the survey at the end of the plan or by attending one of the forums being held in the coming weeks.

This plan has been in the works for some time—its intricate detail makes this apparent. It starts off by clarifying why we need to be sustainable and just what sustainability means. Here it means reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It builds the case by saying that not only is it good for the planet, but it also saves the University money. The plan lays out the challenges and progress that has already been made. Most important to us students and future students are the goals and the benchmarks.

The overarching goal is to reduce GHG emissions to 1990 levels with progress assessed yearly by reporting all GHG emissions. There are many components to this plan, including LEED certification and the reduction of solo-commuting. I will single out metering, which is measuring how much gas and electricity is used, because you might be unfamiliar with it and its potential.

Currently, the University has very limited metering, wherein each meter encompasses many buildings. Imagine if you and your neighbors all paid one bill. You might turn the lights off, but so what if your neighbor leaves his on? Or maybe you get all Energy Star appliances, but you won’t be able to tell because your neighbors like to keep the apartment at 68 degrees in the summer. Worst of all, you would have no clue from looking at the bill who is driving up the cost.

Similarly at the University, one building manager might replace all of a building’s lights with efficient ones, but another building on the same meter might still use inefficient incandescents. More realistically, a building manager might want to see if changing temperature settings in a building from 72 degrees to 70 degrees saves electricity (and thus money), but the other buildings on the meter would make discerning a small difference impossible. The manager could merely estimate how much electricity would be saved, and again the total bill would not show which building is using the most electricity and thus producing the most GHGs.

By metering individual buildings, you not only enable the building manager to pinpoint energy hogs but you open up a whole new way to increase energy savings. Well, it is not new for anyone who has paid an electric bill that was so high they decided they could turn off the AC and use a fan. By linking costs to departments, you will soon see departments encouraging their staff to reduce energy usage.

By metering individual buildings, you also enable competition, which has been proven to bring about good results. Residential colleges already compete in blood donations, so why not energy savings? Speaking of the students, the plan tends to focus on what the University can do by forcing its food suppliers, construction workers, and staff to be more sustainable without really involving the students.

Granted, this is a draft for community review, and the University is very actively seeking student input by working with student leaders through forums, a survey and even right in the e-mail as Chancellor Wrighton writes, “we welcome your thoughts.” However, seeing as undergraduate students are the most populous demographic on campus and considering the amount of detail shown throughout the plan, this should have been given more thought.

By educating students on energy savings and providing means, substantial savings could be made by: reducing personal refrigerators, showing real time building energy use, reducing always-on room lights, encouraging people to study together so that fewer lamps are used and encouraging people to turn the heat down when they leave for class. But these are just my ideas. I am sure you have better ones, so seize this opportunity when the University is listening and let Chancellor Wrighton know. Who knows, if students speak up with good ideas, maybe the University will ask us more often about its plans.