Green Initiatives | Feature

Balancing Sustainability and Economic Reality

The University of Massachusetts Dartmouth is adopting an aggressive, all-encompassing stance to become as green as possible, recouping expenses with long-term energy savings.

The University of Massachusetts Dartmouth left no stone unturned in its most recent sustainability assessment. It's no wonder, really, considering that the is looking to become carbon-neutral (with no negative impact on the environment) by 2050. That gives the school just 39 years to get to a place where literally every aspect of its campus is green.

Tom Paine, project manager for the university's sustainability office, said nine committees, each one made up of faculty, staff, and students, conducted the assessment. The committees were tasked with a specific topic area--energy, purchasing, waste, community, or culture, for example--and examined how each area is currently being handled, ferreted out sectors in need of improvement, and came up with strategies for meeting sustainability goals."

Paine said getting so many people involved in the process proved fruitful for the university. "We had a lot of buy-in for this plan because it was truly a collaborative effort," Paine said. "We took feedback from everyone and used it to come up with our long-term, strategic plan." He said the effort is part of the school's reporting process for the American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment, which it signed in the fall of 2007.

A one-tenth reduction in energy consumption alone would result in $524,000 in annual savings, according to the school's assessment.

"This new assessment puts us on track of reporting for the climate commitment," said Paine. "Our climate action plan was a little delayed, and we were working on our sustainability assessment for a good while and decided to release them together. The assessment was justification for the plan."

In its sustainability assessment, the university outlined 12 areas, including transportation, waste, land use, food, and energy, and then came up with ways to make the school more environmentally friendly in each of those areas. Energy usage, for example, was a particularly important area of concern for the school, said Paine.

As a result of the committee work, for example, UMass Dartmouth is undertaking a $35 million project that will include cost- and energy-saving measures that range from installing low-flow water fixtures to upgrading to high-efficiency light bulbs and using more efficient pumps and vents across campus. Known as an "energy performance contract," the undertaking also involves the Division of Capital Asset Management (DCAM), the state agency responsible for major public building construction and real estate services for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

"DCAM has contracted with our university, and is handling the performance contract with the campus," said Paine, who pointed out that most of the school's facilities were built between 1967 and 1972, making them much less energy efficient than newer college campuses. "Basically, our campus was designed to consume as much energy as it could, so there are massive opportunities for improvement."

In its quest to be carbon neutral by 2050, UMass Dartmouth's green efforts include rebuilding or replacing all HVAC systems; transforming its steam plant into a gas-fired co-generation plant; and upgrading the campus-wide water and sewer system. The undertaking is costly and time-consuming, but, Paine said, the university expects to recapture its investment in 20 years or less.

"The installation cost will be $35 million, and will be paid for by a loan to cover the debt service, plus some additional savings," said Paine. "We expect to recapture that expenditure by saving at least $3 million a year in energy and water costs and by reducing energy consumption by 25 [percent] to 30 percent." (For example, a one-tenth reduction in energy consumption alone would result in $524,000 in annual savings, according to the school's assessment.)

Going beyond the dollars and cents, UMass Dartmouth's aggressive plan would lessen the negative impact that its campus has on the environment. According to Paine, the energy contract alone would prevent about 8,700 tons of carbon dioxide from entering the environment.

Paine said the energy contract also puts UMass Dartmouth on track to comply with a state law that mandates that all state agencies must be 20 percent more energy efficient by 2020, and renewable energy must make up 30 percent of those agencies' overall energy usage by the same year. All new state buildings must also meet the "Massachusetts LEED Plus" green building benchmark for energy efficiency. A planned library renovation, for example, will go beyond that standard and be built to LEED Silver standards.

UMass Dartmouth's green efforts don't stop there. Future green projects (either in the concept or planning stages) could include building a wind turbine for energy generation, installing solar panels on building roofs, retrofitting buildings with improved insulation, and creating facilities that encourage carpooling among students and faculty members.

Getting everyone on board with the institution's green efforts hasn't been easy, according to Paine, who said the size of the university and its history of decentralized decision-making can present obstacles for his department. "Getting everyone to the table at the same time takes some effort," said Paine. Financing is also difficult, particularly in the current economy.

"I spend a lot of time developing capital cost versus operating cost comparisons to show how long it will take to recapture the upfront expenses of the technology and/or equipment," said Paine, who advised other universities to use a similar approach and to persevere, despite the budgetary roadblocks standing in the way. "If you can come up with a well laid-out plan that shows that you can do X and Y to get payback within Z numbers of years, then the money will follow."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at bridgetmc@earthlink.net.

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