Good to Be Green

students walking in green surroundings on campusRyan Bechel had been looking for ways to get involved in some sort of environmental group on campus. The Minnesota State Mankato junior had already turned his interest in sustainability into a major in environmental science—but he was looking for a more hand’s-on way to  be involved. So when he heard that a new Environmental Committee was going to be meeting in January, he marked the date and time on his calendar.

Bechel did more than just attend that meeting, however. He also volunteered to be a co-chair of the committee. “This isn’t a meeting I’m just going to show up to,” he says. “I’m excited about the possibilities of what we can do.”

His co-chair, Erica Johnson, felt the same way. She started her job as the University’s assistant registrar last summer and had been eager to find a way to integrate her undergraduate degree in agricultural education and her specialty in natural and managed environmental systems to good use. So when she heard about the opportunity to be involved on the committee, she volunteered to represent her bargaining unit at the meeting. And then, like Bechel, she also stepped forward as a co-chair.

“I thought that this would be a good way to meet more people related to a field that I’m interested in,” Johnson says. “I see this committee as good for the campus and for the community as well.”

Bechel and Johnson’s enthusiasm about the committee mirrors the University’s desire to put a greater emphasis on campus-widesustainability. It’s a commitment rooted in the strategic plan that President Richard Davenport introduced in 2010. One of the five action steps outlined in the plan is to “reinvigorate our physical home and build the campus of the future,” and one of the ways the administration has begun implementing that is by chartering and supporting the new Environmental Committee.

“As we looked at the strategic plan, a major part of it is to build the campus of the future,” explains Rick Straka, the vice president of finance and administration. “In order to move forward with that, we thought it was important for there to be a University-wide, chartered committee, officially represented by bargaining units and ex-officio members who report with me as a direct liaison to cabinet members. That gives it the legitimacy and proper authority it needs—and shows a commitment from the University to move forward with our commitment to being green.”

That commitment starts at the top—with President Davenport. Sustainability was on his mind as he developed the campus master plan, which includes new, energy-efficient buildings, a more pedestrian-friendly layout and beautification projects affecting both interior and exterior spaces. The success of that long-term vision, he says, depends in many ways on the work of the Environmental Committee. “You have to have the vision, but you can’t just throw it together,” Davenport says. “You have to put it in the hands of the experts to execute. And in this case, we really need everyone, including the students, to be a part of this. We value their opinions.”

Bechel, meanwhile, values the President’s support. “Just the fact that this was initiated by the University administration and that President Davenport signed on to it means a lot,” he says. “It tells me that the University is interested in moving forward.”

The Green Scene

The truth is, the University has been moving forward with substantial environmental efforts for years—although often under the radar. In 2009, for example, an environmental committee was established by the Minnesota State Student Association. Although it wasn’t officially recognized by the administration, it brought together a number of people committed to furthering environmental efforts and bringing attention to those already in progress.

During their meetings, committee members learned about groups and departments all over campus doing their part to go green. Residence Life added water-bottle fillers to each residence hall to reduce the number of plastic bottles being used; each station tallies the number of bottles saved in that building. Dining Services instituted “Trayless Tuesdays” to cut down on the water used in washing cafeteria trays and switched to biodegradable flatware for all disposable spoons and forks. Information Technology Services purchased a pair of electric vehicles to reduce the reliance on fossil fuels for quick trips around campus.

“There are a number of things that have been going on already,” says Dr. Louis Schwartzkopf, an emeritus professor of physics and longtime proponent of renewable energy and sustainability on campus. Although he retired in 2010, he remained involved on the original committee and has committed to serve as the emeriti representative on the new committee as well. He admits that even he doesn’t know of everything that’s taken place on campus—but he does know that much of what’s already happened has made a tremendous impact.

“Probably the biggest efforts as far as I’m concerned are what the physical plant has been doing to make the buildings more energy efficient,” Schwartzkopf says. “If you’re interested in making a difference as far as greenhouse gases and reducing the effects of climate change, then that’s what you have to do.”

The physical plant, which supports and maintains the buildings and infrastructure on campus, has been implementing energy efficient measures since 1994. They started by retrofitting the fluorescent lighting in all the buildings on campus—a project that took four years to complete but that delivered an almost immediate payback. “That was low hanging fruit,” says Planning & Construction Director Paul Corcoran, who was the physical plant project manager at the time. “We saved 20 percent on our electricity bill by the time we were done.”

They replaced the hundreds of exit signs with low-wattage LED lights and added occupancy sensors to hallways, bathrooms and classrooms. They installed direct digital controls that allowed the heating or cooling systems to be turned off in unoccupied spaces through a computer. They started coordinating the fan schedule in academic buildings to each semester’s class schedule, so that the fans only ran where and when needed. They installed carbon dioxide sensors in auditoriums to control the amount of fresh air coming into crowded spaces. They placed reduced-flow fixtures in some bathrooms and installed a computer-controlled irrigation system that could save up to 30 percent on irrigation costs by monitoring the soil and  weather conditions.

Efficiencies are far easier to accomplish in new construction, which is where Corcoran invests most of his energy now. The state requires that all buildings paid for out of general fund dollars go through a process known as B3—Buildings Benchmarking & Beyond. The process identifies energy conservation options and the paybacks associated with each. The University, then, can decide which to implement. The B3 process was used during construction of Ford Hall, for example, and is being used for the new Margaret R. Preska Residence Community as well.

“I’m very motivated to be sure we’re as energy efficient as possible in our new construction and renovations,” Corcoran says. “All of our equipment and the way we respond to campus needs is all with efficiency in mind.”

Although Corcoran and the facilities staff are committed to energy efficiency and sustainability, they can only do so much on their own. It will take a campus-wide effort to achieve an even greater impact, Corcoran says. “The next untapped area is to raise campus awareness and make some behavioral changes,” he explains. “People need to turn off their lights and unplug their chargers. They can turn their computers off instead of letting them go to sleep. There’s only so much that we can do on our end.”

Straka agrees that the responsibility extends to every person on campus. “There are things that can be done through technology and equipment,” he says. “We’ve been working on those, and we want to celebrate the things that we’ve done. But the next step is to change the culture, to change the actual behavior on campus.”

That’s where Bechel, Johnson and the rest of the Environmental Committee come in. One of the marching orders they received in January was to develop a three-year plan to enhance a complete culture of energy conscious behavior and sustainable lifestyles. The first steps in that process, Johnson says, may have to be small. “We can take baby steps to start,” she says. “Then as we gain experience and gain the trust of the campus, we can take it further.”

Reducing waste—especially in terms of electricity—would be a natural place to start. Printers could be turned off at night, on weekends and when they aren’t in use on a daily basis. The lights in vending machines could be dimmed or turned off. “We waste a lot of electricity,” Bechel says. “We could do a lot better with that.”

Better transportation options could also make an immediate difference. Both Bechel and Johnson believe that a more reliable bus system with more options would result in fewer cars being driven to and from campus each day. They both support the idea of providing incentives to students, including adding the cost of a bus pass to tuition fees. “You have to make it easier for off-campus students to use,” Bechel says. “If students live downtown, they really can’t get up to campus without driving.”

Although such changes may seem slight on the surface, the cumulative effect could be significant. “The small changes can make a big difference,” Schwartzkopf says. He cautions, though, that they aren’t enough on their own. “Small changes by themselves are not going to get us to carbon neutrality. We need systemic change to get there.”

The first step toward achieving systemic change would be adopting a sustainability policy—another charge given to the Environmental Committee. Among their first tasks will be to study the proposals already put forth by various groups on campus and to investigate what other colleges and universities are doing. They hope to find proven ideas that can help guide their recommendations for Minnesota State Mankato. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel here,” Bechel says. “We’re going to be trying to glean out the good ideas.”

Schwartzkopf is eager to make recommendations to the administration and to see what comes out of it. He has high hopes for the committee and the role it can play on campus. “I think this committee can be the voice of change and could become the focal point for the University’s efforts,” he says. “The other efforts that are taking place should continue, but my hope is that all of the campuswide initiatives can be made more visible through this committee.”

Straka shares Schwartzkopf’s excitement about the committee’s potential. “Now that it’s more official,” he says, “I hope it will be able to help the University implement the strategic plan related to sustainability.”