Return To The Wire

Greening a Campus

When Scott Hersey, assistant professor of chemical and environmental engineering at Olin College, stood up to introduce his students’ final class presentations in his environmental systems class, he threw out what amounted to a challenge. With a new administration coming to Washington filled with climate change skeptics, looking for non-legislative solutions to global warming has suddenly become of critical importance.

“Private action on climate change matters more today than at any point in history,” Hersey noted. “If we care about this and want to do something about it, it is genuinely up to us.”

His students have already taken up the challenge. They undertook a semester-long exploration of global climate change through the lens of Olin’s energy use patterns and greenhouse gas emissions, culminating in a recent “Energy and Climate Summit.”  

Three teams of students spent the last seven weeks of the semester examining Olin’s emissions profile in three areas: Electricity/Heating, Transportation and Food. In a fact-filled presentation, they not only inventoried Olin’s emissions, but also made recommendations on how to significantly cut them before an audience of faculty, administration, staff and students.

Hersey described climate change as being caused when solar energy absorbed by the earth is re-radiated and trapped in the atmosphere by the greenhouse gasses, especially CO2. With atmospheric CO2 growing in concentration due to the development of the planet’s resources, the global temperature has been steadily rising, he explained. Cutting emissions is key to combatting the warming of the planet.

The food team — Michael Costello and Jose Gonzalez — used a number of novel methods to estimate Olin’s food-related emissions. They looked at the emissions related to producing the food, transporting it, storing and preparing it, along with food waste. They estimated Olin’s food-related emissions of CO2 equivalents at around 400 metric tons per year, or 1 million car miles. On a per-student basis, the average Oliner’s diet causes 1.15 tons of CO2 equivalents to be emitted per year, compared to the average American diet of 2.5 tons.

Olin’s food-related emissions are so low because as a central dining facility, our food doesn’t travel the “last mile,” typically represented by many inefficient car trips to take small amounts of food from grocery store to home. Further, Rebecca’s Café, Olin’s new dining service, has made a commitment to locally sourced foods, reducing transportation emissions. Key recommendations included experimenting with purchasing less red meat, whose production causes far and away the most emissions of common foods, and replacing it with tofu or chicken; and buying more efficient appliances when possible.

The transportation group — Kai Levy, John Mathai and Aditi Joshi — looked mostly at emissions caused through travel to and from campus. Based on some assumptions about travel patterns, the group estimated how many miles guests, prospective students and other visitors travel to come to campus, plus the mileage of students traveling on breaks, and commuters to Olin.

They calculated that Olin produces more than 1,500 metric tons of CO2 per year on transportation, or 4.3 metric tons per student per year—the equivalent of 3 million car miles. By comparison, University of Maryland students produce 2.6 metric tons of CO2 per student per year year, and Swarthmore College students around 2.5 metric tons per student per year. Olin’s somewhat higher averages are due in part to the fact that Olin draws students from around the country.

Further, two unique Olin programs result in significant flying mileage: many Collaboratory visitors travel from abroad, and the college hosts prospective students, many of whom travel from other parts of the country, on campus for Candidates’ Weekends each year.

Their recommendations included incentivizing car pooling, considering alternative fuel types, such as biodiesel for the campus shuttle, and purchasing carbon credits to offset emissions due to flying. They estimated that it would cost $11.65 per Collaboratory guest, and $8.10 per prospective student at Candidates’ Weekend to make those aspects of Olin’s operations carbon neutral. These offsets alone would reduce per-student emissions at Olin to 3.2 metric tons of CO2 equivalents per student annually.

With the help of Facilities, the heat and electricity group — Hieu Nguyen, Brenna Manning and March Saper — looked at energy usage year-round, estimating that Olin emits 3,900 – 4,000 tons of CO2 per year to warm and power the campus. This is the equivalent to 10 million car miles, and is a bit higher than other campuses.

For their recommendations, they turned to a campus facility close to every student’s heart—the Academic Center. Pointing to the hallways where students work on their projects, which become overheated year-round due to sunlight pouring through the spacious windows, the students recommended installing a UV film to limit solar energy from entering, reducing the amount of energy wasted for temperature control. Assuming the film could stop two-thirds of the incoming solar energy, this move would result in a yearly saving of $17,000 in electricity costs, and pay for itself in less than three years.

The group also recommended upgrading to networked building automation systems that log energy use data at high spatial and temporal resolution so that the college can understand its energy use patterns in more granular detail and make better-informed decisions about saving energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. These systems also immediately offer 10-15 percent energy savings by controlling lighting and HVAC systems automatically, and have a 3-4 year payback time.