By Dave Wieczorek
There’s plenty of talk these days about “thinking green” or “going green,” but how many of us truly live green, beyond recycling pop cans or turning off the tap while brushing our teeth? How many of us practice the kind of measures at home and on the job that will help sustain a vibrant environment for ourselves and for future generations?
“That’s a noble notion,” you say, “but I’m just one person on a planet of nearly 7 billion people. How can I possibly make a difference?” To answer that question, Illinois Alumni spoke with four University of Illinois alumni whose passion for environmental sustainability – from making solar energy affordable to restoring a cornfield to its native state – proves that individuals who live “green” can indeed make a difference.
Going Native in Central Illinois
When Michelle Smith Keil ’85 LAS looks out the windows of her home, she gazes at her very own 20 acres of central Illinois prairie. In every direction, depending on the season, she sees dozens of varieties of indigenous grasses and flowers wavering in the breeze, some growing as tall as 7 feet – grasses like big bluestem, prairie dropseed and June Grass; flowers like black-eyed Susan, partridge pea, bee balm, rattlesnake master and purple prairie clover.
The abundance of windows provides a panoramic view of what much of Illinois looked like some 150 years ago, before most of the prairie was plowed under for farmland and development. Keil and her husband, Gary ’78 ENG, spent several years restoring a former cornfield to prairie, seen at left, and then designed and built their home to blend naturally with the native meadow.
“It’s very soothing, very centering,” Keil says. “The prairie is restorative to the land and to me.”
Keil works in nearby Peoria at Caterpillar, the world’s largest manufacturer of construction and mining equipment, diesel and natural gas engines, and industrial gas turbines. She serves as the strategy and engagement manager for the company’s Sustainable Development Group.
Linking prairies and a company that manufactures equipment used in operations such as strip mining may seem as incompatible a pairing as forest and fire. But standing on her porch, Keil sees the world from a unique vantage.
“The prairie and what I do at Caterpillar are fundamentally connected,” she says. “The way I look at my job is that I help people understand that there is room for both things: The natural environment not only can continue to exist but can thrive, and we, Caterpillar, can meet people’s needs – that can happen and must happen.”
Keil’s job is to guide Caterpillar’s employees as they seek to design, build and distribute the most sustainable products and services possible. That means figuring into their technology and processes factors such as fuel efficiency, greenhouse gas emissions, materials efficiency, safety and sound emissions. If a new bulldozer enters the design process, for example, “We have to be cognizant of the iron and steel that will be consumed in the making of that bulldozer and the bulldozer’s end of life,” Keil says. “What happens to the material in that product, can we rebuild or recycle it?”
As her home is the perfect fit for the prairie, Keil seems the perfect fit for promoting sustainability.
“I’m an environmentalist at heart and always have been,” says Keil, who was hired by Caterpillar 20 years ago as a chemist. “This is not something that’s only my vocation – it’s my passion. It’s a blessing to have a job like this at a company whose work is so integral to the way development is done.”
Keil often returns to the unarguable point about which she is most passionate: coexistence of development and the environment.
“Profit must be achieved in a certain way, and that way is becoming recognized as being more and more sustainable,” she says. “The facts are plain. This is a finite planet. ... There’s one planet, one suite of resources. This is what we have to work with.”
Keil can conceive of the day when sustainability will be a non-issue.
“Ideally, 10 years from now, we won’t need a sustainability group at Caterpillar because everyone will have their own sustainability development activity already embedded in what they do,” she says.
And then Keil can spend all her time walking through her prairie?
“That’s the plan.”
The Business of Energy
This admission by Jigar Shah ’96 ENG might surprise anyone who regards him as a 21st-century solar-energy god: He’s not driven by “green.”
“I’m driven by efficiency of the system,” Shah says. “I’m from the Midwest, and Midwest sensibility says you don’t do something that negatively affects your neighbors. If you build a big old wall and it affects your neighbor’s quality of life, that’s just not fair. If people buy vehicles that create worse asthma for other people’s kids, that’s just not being a good neighbor.”
If not a card-carrying environmentalist, we can at least call Shah a good neighbor, a very good neighbor to millions of people. In 2003, hoping to create a better system, he launched a company called SunEdison.
To avoid the prohibitive startup capital needed for solar energy, SunEdison installs – at no cost to customers – solar systems that it owns and operates. Those customers then purchase from SunEdison a solar power services agreement, a concept Shah pioneered, agreeing to buy solar-generated electricity at a set price (typically for 20 years). The customer doesn’t invest any money in a power supply, and SunEdison is guaranteed a revenue stream.
The entrepreneur got hooked on the possibilities of solar energy during his undergraduate days at the U of I in the 1990s, when he took as many solar-specific classes as he could. “I believed in the power of solar energy to be something more than it was back then,” Shah says. Even so, he recalls being “scared out of my mind” when starting SunEdison. According to its Web site, the company, with corporate headquarters in Beltsville, Md., now is North America’s largest provider of solar energy.
Despite his fears, he never doubted the market potential for providing solar-energy systems free of charge to customers.
“There were all these corporations that desperately wanted solar on their roofs but couldn’t afford to use capital expenses to pay for it,” he says. “We played a big role in changing that.”
Shah, who left the company in November, says there are at least 20 companies that have copied the ingenious SunEdison model, a development which he says “makes me very proud.” He lives and works in Washington, D.C., where he is CEO of the Carbon War Room, a global nonprofit whose mission is to accelerate proven ideas to transition to a healthier, more prosperous low-carbon world.
“The big area for me has always been to come up with business solutions to address global warming,” Shah says. “The thing that people have had a hard time understanding about solar is that it’s part of the energy business. While new energy technologies come up all the time, technology is not the driver of the energy industry. The driver is the business model: how you get it financed and how you apply traditional risk-management methods to solar and wind and biomass.
“That to me is the key to solving global warming.”
The Accidental Environmentalist
Some people look at a house slated for demolition and see nothing but landfill fodder. Jodi Frankovelgia Murphy ’84 LAS looks at a doomed structure and sees nothing but profit – for herself, her clients and the environment.
“I can’t say I’ve always felt connected to Mother Earth,” Murphy says. “My interests in this area started off selfishly and grew into an advocacy only after my eyes were opened to the issues of what was going on in the environment.
“The truth is,” she says, laughing, “I’m an accidental environmentalist.”
Now, after more than 20 years as a demolition auctioneer in the recycling business, Murphy is happy to see “everyone is jumping on the green bandwagon.”
Many are doing so after watching the spunky redhead’s reality show, “Total Wrecklamation,” on the Discovery Channel’s Planet Green network.
The program follows Murphy, president of Murco Recycling Enterprises in LaGrange Park, as she selects a home ready for razing, wrangles buyers looking for materials for their own home projects and then conducts an energized auction of everything from stoves to staircases to fixtures, doors and other items before the wrecking ball reduces them to rubble.
“Did you know that according to [the Environmental Protection Agency], at least 30 percent of all landfill waste can be attributed to demolition and construction debris?” says Murphy, who estimates that her type of recycling can prevent three to 12 tons of material from ending up in landfills per project, depending on the size of the home.
Yet, despite her current enthusiasm, Murphy entered the home-auction business through the back door.
“I would love to say I began this way of recycling because I was such an advocate of the planet, but the fact is [my husband, Patrick ’84 BUS, and I] were broke,” she says.
“We had two small children and needed to fix up the house.”
Looking for ways to improve her home at a low cost, Murphy began by salvaging materials from nearby teardowns and soon realized other cash-strapped homeowners were looking for bargains, too. That’s when she became a demolition auctioneer and launched Murco. After a few years she became, in her words, “a true advocate of diverting the solid-waste stream.”
In 1999, Murco received the Governor’s Pollution Prevention Award from the state of Illinois, and this year, Murphy was inducted into the Environmental Hall of Fame in Chicago. Murco’s latest project is partnering with Habitat for Humanity to build a “green” home in nearby Carpentersville. Construction was to begin in August.
What is most gratifying, Murphy says, is watching the mind-set of the public evolve and begin to understand the green issues at hand.
“When I first started the business, [people] just wanted to sell a house as quickly as possible,” she says. “And then, magically, over the last five years, I have seen such a stunning social turnaround – like a communal consciousness – where people are not just talking the talk but walking the walk. Now it’s almost embarrassing if owners don’t recycle their homes.
“Before I was saying, ‘You’re leaving money on the table.’ Now my clients are saying, ‘I want to make sure none of this goes to waste.’”
The Web of Life
Hanging on the wall of Ron Meissen’s, MS ’73 ENG, office at Baxter International Inc. is a photograph of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward O. Wilson, known also as the “Father of Biodiversity.”
Below the picture lies this passage from Wilson’s book, “The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth”: “At their current rates, half the species of plants and animals on Earth could be either gone or at least fated for early extinction by the end of the century . A full quarter will drop to this level during the next half century as a result of climate change alone [because of global warming].”
Like Wilson, Meissen encourages individuals to understand the importance of biodiversity so that they might support the “web of life” on Earth. Pointing to activities which disrupt that network, he said, “We’re part of that web … so at what point do we get caught in the implications of species extinction?”
Meissen is the senior director of sustainability, corporate environment, health and safety at Baxter, a $12 billion health-care giant with more than 48,000 employees. Headquartered in Deerfield, the company manufactures and markets medical devices, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology around the world.
Meissen’s role is to support Baxter’s executive-level Sustainability Steering Committee in establishing global sustainability goals, measuring progress and reporting performance to upper management. To Meissen, Baxter is one of America’s sustainability leaders – in 2009, it was named one of the Global 100 Most Sustainable Corporations in the World for the fifth straight year. The ranking came from Corporate Knights Inc. and Innovest Strategic Value Advisors, the No. 1 firm for analyzing companies’ performance on environmental, social and strategic governance issues, with a focus on their impact on competitiveness and profitability.
The company’s decades-long environmental initiatives include: introducing more fuel-efficient fleets to deliver its products; applying Lean manufacturing principles (manufacturing without waste) to conserve water and other resources; and incorporating green-building design principles.
In the mid-’90s, Baxter set a goal to reduce its energy usage – and associated greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – by 30 percent (per unit of production); it fell just 3 percent short. Since then the company has set a new goal of reducing GHG emissions 45 percent per unit of sales by 2015.
The issue of sustainability first grabbed Meissen’s attention in the early 1990s.
“I read an EPA report saying that global climate change was going to be a very serious issue,” he recalls. “I didn’t know anything about it – and I was head of environmental engineering for Baxter. I talked to other people, and no one else knew anything about it, either.” He started studying sustainability, where he came under the influence of Wilson and his persuasive arguments about Earth’s biodiversity being driven to the brink.
Meissen became so engaged with sustainability that he returned to school in 2000 at age 52 to work on a doctorate in environmental science, completing his degree in 2007.
At approximately the same time of Meissen’s personal enlightenment, Baxter created the new Sustainability Steering Committee.
“[We] said we would be leaders in respect to the environment,” he says. “Instead of being reactive, we would be proactive. We’re doing that with things like waste and water reduction and by measuring and reporting energy usage and greenhouse gas emissions and by setting reduction goals.”
Meissen emphasizes that while a company like Baxter is doing its part to promote sustainability, only global involvement will lighten our heavy footprint.
“The environmental issues we’re facing right now are serious,” he says. “We need an engaged society. We need a global response. We need all hands on deck.
“The thing about nature is that it doesn’t give bailouts.”
Wieczorek is a freelance writer and editor in the Chicago area.