The U of I seeks sustainability across campus and the world
By Mary Timmins
Like Proteus, the shape-shifting god of the ancient Greeks, sustainability takes many forms. At the University of Illinois, a whole ecosystem of sustainability has taken root and sprung up across campus, rather as though some elemental force had everywhere strewn potent green seeds. There are offices and institutes and committees. There are lighting improvements and green roofs and solar panels and retrocommissionings. There are experimental projects and research on the atmosphere and recycling that’s totally committed to keeping trash out of landfills. There are alliances with industry and tiny prairies and photovoltaic panels that make sunlight into electricity and projects to help people who hardly have the money to live much less do it sustainably. There’s a rain garden behind Allen Hall – those quarters to which free-thinking undergraduates are drawn as moths to solar luminaria – which gathers rain to sustain its own native plants and filters the rest, improving the quality of nearby groundwater.
Yes, the University is definitely into sustainability – which in the end and in the beginning and in the here and now means figuring out what sustainability is.
When oil prices embarked on an upward heave in 2008, the energy costs – always high – startled the University budget into fits. For a place full of laboratories and computers and high-tech equipment, double-digit leaps in the power bill are – well, unsustainable. Having already signed Illinois to the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (pledging to eliminate campus greenhouse gas emissions, help re-stabilize the climate of the Earth and seek energy independence for America), Chancellor Richard Herman ordered a reduction of 10 percent energy consumption on campus over three years.
By last June, the target had almost been reached – two years ahead of schedule.
“There’s been a cultural change here on campus,” notes Tom Abram ’05 ENG, sustainability coordinator at the UI Office of Facilities & Services. “We got hit in our pocketbook, and a lot of times that’s what it takes.” As well as replacing outdated lighting and encouraging people to turn thermostats down and lights off when not in use, F&S has undertaken the massive task of retrocommissioning buildings on campus. Teams check out aging systems in aging facilities and make repairs and recommendations that have led to mega-savings. In the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, for example, F&S analyzed heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, installing sensors, replacing thermostats, and doing maintenance – a process expected to save $376,000 annually in energy costs.
With work complete on 12 campus buildings, “We’ve more than made up for the monies we’ve invested in retrocommissioning – by a long shot,” observes Herman. “We’ve spent $2 million and saved $7.5 million. So we’re already approximately $5 million to the plus.”
Retrocommissioning is supported by the UI Student Sustainability Committee, which tends a big green-for-green pot of money – more than a half million dollars from fees that UI students have voted to pay to make their campus (and, by extension, their world) a cleaner place. “There’s a lot of opportunity to do things that can pay for themselves in five years,” says Suhail Barot ’06 ENG, the graduate student in engineering who heads the committee, which makes both grants and loans. SSC-funded projects range from wood-fired heating at the U of I’s Allerton Park and Retreat Center in Monticello to sensors in classrooms that switch off the lights when no one’s around to more parking spaces for bikes on campus.
The Orange, Blue and Green Committee at the UI College of Veterinary Medicine got SSC money to plant native grasses and plants on the Vet Med campus. The tiny new prairie is part of a campuswide flowering of no-mow zones (places where native flora are allowed to grow in place of grass) and green roofs (comprising vegetation and soil over a waterproof membrane, with rainwater runoff directed into a collection system used for watering). A green roof will be created this fall atop the glass-walled School of Art and Design exhibit space that connects to the Krannert Art Museum. A block away, one is already leafing on the new Business Instructional Facility, designed by Cesar Pelli, MS ’54 FAA. Fashioned of heat-deflecting zinc, the roof is also mounted with photovoltaic solar panels meeting up to 9 percent of the building’s electricity needs.
At the north end of the campus, the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering is going forward with a new building that ECE professor Phil Krein, MS ’80 ENG, PHD ’82 ENG, who is deeply involved in the project, envisions as “a living facility – a research program in its own right.” Expected to open on the Beckman Quad in 2012, the facility will adopt a “net-zero” energy ideal by generating as much of its own electricity as possible from solar panels; it will also feature a high-efficiency heating and cooling system. Comingled classroom, laboratory, office and meeting spaces will encourage students and faculty to linger and learn. “Our department is all about interaction,” Krein notes. “We want to make sure the new building creates that.”
The new ECE building will be possible, in part, because of the capital appropriations bill signed into law by Gov. Pat Quinn in July. As well as $44.5 million for ECE – to be matched by private funding – the bill allots $57.3 million for the long-awaited renovation of Lincoln Hall, that beloved but crumbling great-granddaddy of the Quad. In terms of everything from preserving history to keeping materials out of landfills, “using an old building,” observes F&S sustainability coordinator Abram, “is more sustainable than building a new one.”
For sustainability is about the old as well as the new, about the best use of resources, about keeping life economical and tidy. Sustainability is a kind of hugely expanded version of how sheep farmers work and live on the west coast of Norway. That’s where UI architecture professor Vidar Lerum grew up. “Everything on a sheep is used,” recalls Lerum. “The culture was about scarcity and how to maximize any resource.” Lerum is translating this childhood sensibility over to the 50-year-old redwood ranch house in Urbana that he’s radically rehabbing, both as residence for himself and living lab for his students. The 50-year-old structure is becoming a place of efficient appliances, solar windows, photovoltaic panels, recycled siding, green roof and low-energy lighting – some of the LED bulbs Lerum’s using draw one watt of power. All of which makes sense not only economically but aesthetically.
And who wouldn’t buy into that?
From a loftier standpoint, though – literally lofty, as our atmosphere occludes with gases that trap the Earth’s heat – sustainability is about survival. In June, the U.S. Global Research Program released findings that prompted the Chicago Sun-Times to run the headline: “Get used to it: Report predicted heat waves, flooding.” Among a range of other frightening elements, the report predicts a “migrating states” phenomenon, projecting that, if current emission levels continue, Illinois in 2100 will have the climate of today’s Texas.
“We’ve already seen the impact of climate change,” says Don Wuebbles ’70 ENG, MS ’72 ENG, a prominent atmospheric scientist at the U of I and one of the authors of the government report. (He was also a member of the U.N. panel that shared the 2007 Nobel Peace prize with former Vice President Al Gore for work on climate change.) “More’s going to happen no matter what we do.” Like heat waves and intense storms, in which flooding runoff mingles with sewage to pollute water supplies. And droughts, such as those long ongoing in Texas and California.
Essential to life and increasingly fought over by people who don’t have enough of it, water is among the major concerns of those who monitor the impact of climate change. Water that floods, water that gets dirty and makes people sick, water that goes away and never comes back. “A lot of areas are using fresh water so quickly that it can’t be replenished,” notes Barbara Minsker, a UI environmental engineer who advocates “redesigning landscapes to absorb water, meaning there’s less pollution in streams, rivers and the ocean.”
Changes in water patterns are also what UI anthropologist Lisa Lucero studies, albeit the water patterns of Central America 1,200 years ago. That’s where and when the Maya people vanished. Lucero believes a mega-drought dried up the reservoirs of the major cities of Tikal and Calakmul. When the water left, so did the people.
“The more they relied on one source of ‘funding’ [i.e., irrigated agriculture], the more susceptible they were to collapse,” explains Lucero. Last spring, she helped put together Planet U, a conference at Illinois on the history of climate change. A fellow UI organizer was Gillen Wood, an authority on the Romantic period. Wood believes this era – which produced such poets as William Wordsworth and Percy Bysshe Shelley – shows troubling parallels with our own.
“Romanticism is thought of as a celebration of nature. But it’s a little darker than that,” he says. “Coincident with the rise of industrialism, many environments [at that time] were being lost and communities disappearing.” Wood is also working on a history and an interactive Web site about Mount Tambora, an Indonesian volcano that exploded in 1815, disrupting the world for years with drought, cold and famine.
That even lost volcanoes, Romantic poetry and the Maya are germane to sustainability shows how awesomely confusing a subject it can be. What’s clear is that climate change cannot be addressed solely in scientific terms. For Wood, the question in those times, as now, is, enormous: “What happens when the climate reaches a tipping point, and a whole series of bad things happen?”
UI political science professor Steve Seitz is looking at another kind of tipping point, this one to do with public perception. The idea of climate change is dismissed by many different people for many different reasons, ranging from conspiracy theories to extreme evangelism – despite broad scientific consensus that human activity is measurably increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which in turn negatively affect Earth’s weather. Based on his research, Seitz predicts a shift in thought rolling in behind the shift in the rains and the winds and the temperatures.
“If you’re battered with severe weather several years in a row, it becomes too hard to ignore,” Seitz says. “You ask what’s happening.” Massive movement on huge questions happens when various stakeholders change their minds and a quorum is achieved. “People shift not because they’re buying into the explanation, but because they’re buying into the same end for different reasons,” Seitz explains.
He believes that very process is under way in America, albeit too slowly.
“If our generation does what it can to hold the fort, it gives the next generation a better start,” Seitz observes. “We’ll hand off to them a problem that’s not as bad as it could be.”
A year ago, in the fall of 2008, UI faculty members Minsker and Dick Warner, MS ’75 LAS, PHD ’81 LAS, dove into the subject of sustainability and the University of Illinois. From that endeavor – which involved talking to lots and lots of people on campus – flowed a vision statement calling for two grand goals.
The first is that the University preserve natural ecosystems and create its own ecosystems to mimic the natural ones. A potent example already in place is the campus recycling system which, through intensive sorting at the UI Material Recovery Facility, keeps almost half of the University’s waste out of landfills. Last year, this included 1,236 tons of paper and 21 tons of plastic. “If you look at what happens in nature, something creates waste and something else uses it,” observes Minsker, now an associate provost fellow. “You don’t see waste piling up.”
The second of the two goals is to sustainably raise living standards for the world’s poor. “Population growth is a major challenge,” Minsker observes. “Coming up with solutions that will help them solve their own problems – that’s sustainability.”
Warner, a professor of wildlife ecology and natural resources, now heads the new Office of Sustainability at Illinois, which emerged as part of the vision process. As well as coordinating sustainability efforts across campus, a key component of his work is engaging such corporate partners as Mars-Wrigley, Monsanto, Abbott Labs, Baxter Labs, Wal-Mart and Caterpillar. Far from resisting the need for sustainable change, Warner says, “these are corporations that, in the ’90s, were gearing up for corporate compliance with government environmental regulations.
“Now they’re saying that not only is sustainability correct – it’s profitable.”
Also on campus is the Institute for Natural Resource Sustainability, formed in 2008 from the state of Illinois natural history, water and geologic surveys and hazardous waste/sustainable technology center (all four having been long housed on the Urbana campus). The institute’s distinguished history of environmental advocacy includes providing data used in “Silent Spring,” the Rachel Carson classic. In the ’60s, the book exposed the extermination of birds and other wildlife by the pesticide DDT, impelling popular support for the environmental movement in America.
Just a few of the current earth-friendly initiatives at INRS include carbon sequestration projects (which capture CO2 emissions and send them underground rather than into the atmosphere), monitoring the atmosphere, dealing with invasive species and diseases, helping Illinois companies deal with waste and an innovative experiment to use the Mahomet Aquifer for geothermal heat. “Virtually all of our programs are aimed at serving the citizens of Illinois, both in economic development and environmental security,” notes geologist Bill Shilts, who is INRS director.
“No other university has anything like this.”
Still another campus entity – the new Environmental Change Institute – helped mount a Chicago conference this spring on controlling greenhouse gases through cap and trade. (For more on this method of managing emissions, see “Planetary Diplomat,” pp. 40-42.) The idea behind the institute, says interim director Wes Jarrell, is to embody sustainability through “solutions that are economically viable, environmentally sound and socially just.” Among Jarrell’s interests, both professionally and personally, is the importance of locally produced food, which is at once higher in quality and lower in energy consumption – aka “carbon footprint” – than goods trucked in from high-producing areas like California and Florida. Himself a goat farmer, who makes elegant tomme and creamy chevre cheeses and sells them at the open-air market in Urbana, Jarrell observes that, “local food means adding more capacity and more stability in the supply and price.”
Elsewhere on the ever-greener UI campus, the College of Engineering is preparing to offer an academic option in energy and sustainability engineering to graduate students – a green sheen on a degree is a good thing to carry forth into an environmentally challenged world. The School of Earth, Society and Environment, formed three years ago from the geology, geography and atmospheric science departments, has added
interdisciplinary majors in science of the earth and in society and the environment. The latter is for students whose strengths are in the social sciences and humanities.
“Law, public policy, industries with a green component – there are just a huge variety of careers they can go after,” observes Steve Marshak, a UI geologist who currently serves as the school’s director.
Courses pertaining to sustainability are offered throughout the University in disciplines diverse as aerospace engineering, integrative biology, religious studies and law. Academic experiences for students range from carbon-neutral study abroad to developing models for subsistence-level businesses in a yearlong graduate course taught by business administration professor Madhu Viswanathan. “When the students come back,” Viswanathan observed of the course, which takes students to marketplaces in the cities of India, “they see the world very differently.”
But, then, they see the world differently to begin with.
Among the renewable resources that make sustainability possible – resources like earth, water, air and sunlight – none is more potent than life. And while all life follows the same birth-to-death cycle, only people can radically challenge the parameters of existence – preferably for the better, through the creation and sharing of knowledge.
This is, of course, the very raison d’être of the University of Illinois. And nowhere is the spirit of learning more exuberantly embodied than in the students.
“I want to give the students a lot of credit for really helping to bring this issue to the fore,” says Chancellor Herman. “Obviously there’s a lot of faculty interest in sustainability, both in terms of research and general interest. But the students have championed this cause in a way that deserves special recognition.”
Students are sustainability at Illinois.
It is students who haul the used cooking oil from the residence halls to the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, where it’s made into biodiesel for the University’s fleet of maintenance vehicles. It is students who are building a state-of-the-art, energy-efficient model home, which will roll to Washington, D.C., for the Solar Decathlon competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy in November (see photos above). It is students who have created a campus carbon registry that will allow environmentally conscious travelers and companies to purchase offsets from plane trips, supporting such energy conservation efforts on campus as sensors that shut off classroom lights when no one’s there and the power-saving “thin clients” that are replacing hard-drive computers in computer labs across campus.
Engineering students have designed a simple planter that is helping some Africans better grow their own food. Other engineering students have created a cooling system for the new Blue Waters supercomputing center that should save $2 million a year in utility costs. Dance and architecture students
rebuilt a dance rehearsal space using recycled material. Students formed a Green Energy Team to collect aluminum cans and make them into solar heaters to be used by underprivileged families.
It is students who ride bikes and take buses and use Zipcars when they need to make a special trip – both because they want to live sustainably and because they are students.
And it is students whose organizations support sustainability in everything from building homes for the needy while on spring break to raising awareness of human trafficking.
Environmental economics major Anthony Larson heads Students for Environmental Concerns, an activist group that mostly engages in collegial activities like working to reduce the amount of bottled water consumed on campus and composting food waste from Allen Hall to fertilize a new farm that supplies produce to the University dining halls (see pp. 10-11).
Yet he offers a perspective that isn’t exactly collegial. “With due respect,” he tells a writer seasoned enough to be his aunt, “we won’t see the effects of climate change in your lifetime, but we’ll see it in my lifetime.
“Your generation is already determining what kind of problems my generation will face in the future, if we don’t do something now.
“It’s our future we’re talking about,” he insists. “It’s not some intangible issue.”
And, in the end, Larson notes, it’s about cooperation. “My roommate is the most conservative person I know, but he’s a better recycler than me,” he confesses.
“It’s not ‘them versus us.’