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Lean Green Machines: 7 Sustainability Stars in Higher Ed

Across the world of higher education, IT departments are embracing sustainability to save money--and the planet. We profile seven institutions that have shifted their efforts into high gear.

Illustration by Jon Reinfurt

How far we have come. Not long ago, sustainability was little more than a buzzword among people who grow their own vegetables and sing John Lennon songs. Today, it's on the lips of everyone from the president to captains of industry, not only because it makes sense for the planet, but for economic reasons, too. Colleges and universities have been among the leaders nationwide in adopting green initiatives, partly due to their demographics, but also because they are facing their own budget pressures.

Virtualization has become the poster child of many schools' efforts, because it provides significant bang for the buck. However, more and more higher ed IT departments are finding other, innovative ways to cut back on energy consumption and waste--and to reduce costs. With this in mind, we've chosen seven of our favorite green practices in higher education today. The list provides a diverse sampling by geography and project type--but it's by no means comprehensive. If you've got a project we should know about, please fill us in.

1) Making Everything Shipshape
Institution: Shippensburg University (PA)
Green Machine: Campaign teaches energy awareness
At this south-central Pennsylvania institution, green initiatives ranging from print management to server virtualization fall under the catchy slogan, "Environmental StewardSHIP." It's a phrase that leaders from the IT and facilities management departments tout to students and faculty members alike. Since the program launched in 2009, IT leaders have worked with the school newspaper on a series of articles about how students can cut back on energy consumption. Recently, they ran a promotion asking students to bring their computers to the Student Help Desk so IT technicians could adjust the power settings to make the machines consume less energy. Justin Sentz, director of web technical services, says this simple initiative alone resulted in a couple of thousand dollars in energy savings. "The whole idea is to educate students and make them more aware," he says. "The more they hear about us, the more they'll change."

Top 5 Energy-Saving Measures*

  1. Buy ENERGY STAR-qualifying devices
  2. Buy servers and other data center equipment employing newer, low-power/low-wattage processors
  3. Buy computers that employ newer, low-power/low-wattage processors
  4. Employ energy-efficient/load-shedding uninterruptible power supplies (UPS)
  5. Train employees to shut down/suspend their equipment when out of office for extended periods

*Among higher ed organizations that have achieved a 1 percent decrease in energy consumption as part of an energy-management program. Source: CDW-G 2010 Energy Efficient IT Report

2) Giving up the Paper Route
Institution: Creighton University (NE)
Green Machine: Paperless course-evaluation system
In 2010, Creighton University unveiled a homegrown online course-evaluation system that replaces traditional paper-based surveys. The system, which integrates with the institution's student information system from SunGard Higher Education, currently covers 800 courses. According to Brian Young, vice president for IT, the savings could amount to $40,000 per semester, the equivalent of about 3 million sheets of paper. Nevertheless, says Young, the effort was not about money. Digitizing the dreaded "Blue Surveys" emerged out of an overarching drive to reduce the school's carbon footprint. "There's no question the system will bring good things in terms of efficiency and monetary savings," explains Young. "But really, we did all of this because we wanted to cut back on waste."

3) Monitoring the Vital Signs
Institution: University of Iowa
Green Machine: Automated monitoring of facilities systems
Created in January 2010, the UI Energy Control Center allows staffers to optimize production levels of steam, chilled water, and electricity, and to monitor performance of these systems across 82 buildings from one central location. The software, from Rockwell Automation, keeps tabs on more than 100,000 pressures, temperatures, and flows in real time. Zuhair Mased, the university's associate director of utilities and energy management, says the initiative was part of a campuswide effort to reduce overall energy consumption by 15 percent by 2013. "You can't manage what you can't measure," he says. In 2011, a new project will devise performance models for each boiler, turbine, and chiller on campus. By comparing these data with load forecasting and energy prices, the school will able to determine the optimum combination of boilers, turbines, and chillers to run at any given time.

74%: Higher ed institutions that have/are developing programs to manage and reduce IT energy use

49%: Higher ed IT managers who know what portion of their IT budget is spent on energy

61%: Higher ed IT organizations that have reduced IT energy costs by 1 percent or more since initiating an energy-management program

36%: IT managers in higher ed who see energy efficiency as a very important consideration when purchasing equipment

Source: CDW-G 2010 Energy Efficient IT Report

4) What, This Old Thing?
Institution: Temple University (PA)
Green Machine: Repurposing outdated computers
Temple University created the Computer Recycling Center (CRC) in 2003 to repurpose hardware instead of disposing of it. In recent years, the center has paid huge dividends. In 2009, for instance, 78 percent of all computers that came into the center were redeployed; since 2005, the center has refurbished more than 7,000 computers. Jonathan Latko, assistant director of the center, notes that repurposing works well because most hardware on higher education campuses is underutilized and therefore can last several years beyond warranty expiration. "A 3-year-old computer from a high-end graphics developer can be repurposed for a student who needs one for internet and word processing," he says. Overall, since the center's inception, it has diverted 1.2 million pounds of waste from landfills. In September 2009, the CRC was the recipient of one of only 10 awards presented by the regional Environmental Protection Agency.

5) Savings Are a Lot of Hot Air
Institution: Butler University (IN)
Green Machine: Data center heats college building
A $14 million addition to Butler's College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences opened in late 2009. By the fall of 2010, school officials had implemented a system to repurpose heat from the structure's data center and all of its servers. In cold weather, which is no rare occurrence during a Midwest winter, the heat is transferred to the building's hot water system, and is used to preheat outside air for use inside. In both cold and warm weather, the heat is also distributed to Variable Air Volume Terminal Units, devices that control temperatures and provide dehumidification in each office. According to CIO Scott Kincaid, project engineers estimate the system currently provides 20 percent of the building's heat. They predict that it could provide as much as 40 percent by the time the data center is fully equipped. "By thinking about being green from the beginning of the project, we were able to find synergy that is good for the planet as well as our budget," says Kincaid.

6) Taking a Byte out of Landfills
Institution: Indiana University
Green Machine: Recycling discarded electronic waste
Recycling electronic waste such as old computers, TVs, and monitors is a daunting challenge considering how much technology we all use today. The challenge didn't deter IU students, who persuaded the IT Services department to launch its Electronic Waste Collection Days program. On numerous dates throughout the year, students, faculty, and staff can drop off their old equipment to be completely recycled--nothing ends up in a landfill. Collection days netted more than 650,000 pounds of waste in 2010, and a whopping 830,000 pounds in 2009. Anything that contains potentially sensitive data is shredded. According to Susan Coleman, senior communications and sustainability specialist, the recycling services are provided free by Apple, which works with Sims Recycling Solutions to melt down equipment for reuse. Starting this year, various student groups will fan out across campus to collect old equipment in residence halls. "IU students are more involved than ever," says Coleman.

Related Reading

Recycling old electronic equipment makes everyone on campus feel good, but an institution's responsibility doesn't start and end with the collection efforts. Too many incidents of toxic computer waste being dumped in Third World countries mean that schools have to be careful whom they partner with for waste disposal. In "The Dirty Truth About E-Waste," CT examines how schools can ensure that their electronic waste is recycled properly.

7) Books Are Just Cool
Institution: Drexel University (PA)
Green Machine: Using books to optimize library cooling
For years, the approach to cooling the library at this Philadelphia-area institution was to run air-conditioning during the day, and then turn it off at night after the building closed. It seemed like a reasonable approach for controlling energy use, but there was an even better way: Now, Drexel precools the building overnight when electricity prices--and ambient temperatures--are at their lowest, and then turns off one of the two air-conditioning systems during the day. When the library opens in the morning, the temperature is around 70 degrees, and it rises only about 5 degrees over the course of the day. The secret to the library's thermal inertia? "We figured out that books are great storage media for cooling," says Bill Taylor, director of mechanical services, adding that the strategy has saved about $25,000 a year. "It wasn't hard to implement," he says, "and it didn't require any additional hardware."

A Phoenix Rises From the AASHE 

Founded in 2006, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) is a nonprofit association of more than 1,100 colleges and universities working toward creating a sustainable future. The group provides resources, professional development, and a network of support to enable member institutions to model and advance sustainability in everything they do--from governance to operations and research.

Most of the nation's leading institutions in green IT are members of AASHE, and many of them took ideas for their bleeding-edge programs from other organizations in the group. According to Executive Director Paul Rowland, this kind of networking is precisely what makes the organization so important.

"Sustainability isn't the kind of thing where you do something and you want all the credit for yourself," he says. "Colleges and universities that join this group want to share and learn from their peers; they recognize that's how we all get better."

AASHE also provides a rating system for schools' sustainability efforts. Dubbed the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment, & Rating System--or STARS--the system debuted last year and is a self-reporting framework for schools to gauge progress in their green efforts.

Much like the US Green Building Council's LEED ratings, the STARS system is based on points, and ultimately rewards participating institutions with four different ratings: Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Platinum.

Points and credits are awarded for green practices in everything from purchasing and sourcing to recycling and repurposing. Schools receive special credits for energy-conservation programs and development projects that embrace sustainable, low-impact philosophies.

More than anything, Rowland says, these ratings help qualify a school's sustainability efforts. "It becomes part of the brand, as if an institution says, 'Look at us, we're doing this right and here's an independent organization that can prove it,'" he explains.

Additionally, Rowland notes that because schools are so decentralized, the STARS process helps establish connections and raise awareness among departments and divisions on the same campus. "Look at a campus and there usually aren't many connections between people in one department and another," he says. "It's our hope that this process helps bridge those gaps, and gets people working together toward making their institutions more sustainable."

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