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Green Initiatives

Moving Toward a 'Net-Zero' Campus

Portland Community College in Oregon is taking the first step in a larger effort to retrofit its aging campuses and shift to energy-efficient, environmentally friendly facilities.

When Linda Gerber surveyed Portland Community College's Sylvania campus recently, she didn't see very many energy-efficient, environmentally friendly buildings. What she did see were a high number of antiquated buildings that--not unlike many community college campuses that were constructed in the late-1960s and early-1970s--were in serious need of an upgrade.

"Between 1965 and 1972 there was one community college built every two weeks in the U.S.," said Gerber, PCC's Sylvania campus president, "so there are a lot of older campuses, many of which were built using the same techniques as ours."

The buildings Gerber referred to make up one of three main PCC campuses that serve a total of 86,000 students. Out of the 13 buildings on the Sylvania campus, seven were built before 1971, and, as such, lack any type of energy efficiency and were not built with issues like climate change in mind.

Ranked among the top 20 largest community colleges in the United States, PCC is in the middle of a physical upgrade that will bring the Sylvania campus (and eventually its other locations) into a millennium as part of the United States Department Energy's Net-Zero Commercial Building Initiative where "going green" has become a goal for many institutions of higher education.

"Sylvania was built first, so it's getting the initial upgrade treatment," said Gerber. Through the program, the DOE partners with various entities to create energy-efficient and green commercial building technologies.

Helping to jumpstart the retrofit is a $1 million grant that PCC received in October 2009 from Oregon's State Energy Program. In June, the federal government award $16.8 million in Recovery Act funding to the state. The funds are being used to promote energy efficiency, renewable energy projects, and a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Gerber said PCC's green efforts date back to 2007, when the school developed an "action plan" as part of the American College & University Presidents' Climate Commitment. According to the initiative's Web site, the group "addresses global warming by garnering institutional commitments to neutralize greenhouse gas emissions, and to accelerate the research and educational efforts of higher education to equip society to re-stabilize the earth's climate."

Gerber said about 750 presidents from colleges of all sizes across the United States, have committed to participating in the American College & University Presidents' Climate Commitment. "Basically the goal is to implement plans that will reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by the year 2050, with benchmarks along the way," said Gerber. "It's a huge, national effort with more colleges signing on every day."

When PCC signed up for the initiative, Gerber said, the institution's first step was to come up with a climate action plan for its own facilities. Most of 2007 was spent educating team members about the dangers of global warming, and pinpointing specific areas where the school's carbon emissions could be reduced. "The next year, we got down to the business of writing the plan," said Gerber, who added that the retrofit of existing buildings and the construction of new facilities were both factored into the plan.

PCC, which hired an outside consult to complete an assessment of its Sylvania campus, is now in the middle of the RFP process for the retrofit. After the assessment, the consultancy presented PCC with seven different scenarios, ranging from the "cheapest" option, which would save the school $692,000 annually in energy costs, to the $71 million overhaul.

The college selected the "fifth option," according to Gerber, who said the retrofit came with a price tag of $15.4 million, some of which will be covered by the school's own budget. Currently in the RFP stage, the project will find construction workers installing a more efficient central cooling system, sealing ductwork leaks, upgrading system controls, redirecting cool air to the appropriate systems, installing air filters, and putting in HVAC controls that work efficiently with one another.

The school will also construct one new building and install a 1.1 megawatt co-generator to replace its current coal-fired and natural gas systems. Once installed and in use, the co-generator and related upgrades are expected to reduce the school's power bill by $1.1 million annually, from a current $1.6 million to a much lower $400,000. "That's pretty amazing in and of itself," said Gerber.

When the $15.4 million project wraps up in 2013, Gerber said, PCC will be one step closer to its larger goal of completing its Net-Zero Commercial Building Initiative. She said the retrofit of the Sylvania campus is expected to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 57 percent, which will translate into a 40 percent reduction district-wide (based on the size of the campus).

"Our other campuses were built later and already have more efficiencies than we do," said Gerber, who said she's enthused by the "green" efforts being made at her campus over the last two years. "If we're going to meet our goals for energy and greenhouse gas reductions, we really have to address the problem of inefficient, older buildings first."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at [email protected].

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