Going Green

The University of Rhode Island has been at the forefront of environmental research for decades, helping to develop a greater understanding of the ecology of the planet we call home while also examining the impact of human activities on ecosystems as varied as the deep sea and suburban backyards. In many ways, however, the operations of the campus itself haven’t kept up with the advanced research and teaching taking place within its buildings. But that is rapidly changing. A wide variety of “green” initiatives are under way, designed to transform the University into a sustainable community and reduce its environmental impact while also graduating more environmentally-aware students who have the skills to address an increasing number of pressing environmental issues.

In 2007, President Robert L. Carothers signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, which requires the University to develop a comprehensive plan to reduce campus greenhouse gas emissions and eventually achieve carbon neutrality.

“This is a significant commitment that will have to be incorporated into our strategic planning process and may require considerable investment in the short term. It will also affect a number of established University policies,” President Carothers said. “However, I believe it is vital to the image and the brand of the University, as well as to the health of the planet, that we take this important step and be fully engaged in the process.”

To provide strategic guidance and oversight of the University’s commitment, the president established a Council on Sustainability, led by Vice President for Administration Robert Weygand ’71, ’76, that reviews plans, provides advice on best practices, supports initiatives, and imagines solutions for the greening of URI.

The council’s first step was to calculate the University’s carbon footprint, the total amount of greenhouse gases emitted in a year from all activities on campus, including electricity, heating, and commuting to campus by faculty, staff, and students. Oceanography Professor S. Bradley Moran volunteered to take on that monumental task, which was made all the more difficult by the unavailability of some historic data. Nonetheless, after months of data collection and analysis he concluded that the URI carbon footprint is approximately 97,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents, two-thirds of which is a result of heating and electricity usage. The total footprint equates to about 6 metric tons per person or 22 kilograms per square foot of building space. The council will soon establish a goal and strategies for substantially reducing that carbon footprint.

Even before the Council on Sustainability was established in August 2007, many green initiatives were already in the works. Perhaps the most significant was a comprehensive $18 million effort to reduce energy use on campus. Following an energy audit of the University’s four campuses in 2005, a contract was signed with NORESCO, a leading energy services company, to replace lighting fixtures, windows, heating/air conditioning systems, and other equipment, as well as to make improvements to building energy management control systems. The upgrades will save more than 7 million kilowatt hours of electricity and 42 million pounds of heating steam per year. Best of all, the contract did not require any up-front capital expenditures.

According to J. Vernon Wyman, assistant vice president for business services, the upgrades will be paid over 12 years from the savings on the University’s utility bills. “It’s a win-win solution for URI and the state’s taxpayers,” he said.

The Memorial Union and the athletics complex were the first buildings to receive energy efficiency upgrades through the program, with numerous additional buildings due to be included through 2009.

The University is pursuing a number of other energy-related initiatives designed to reduce its carbon footprint as well. For example, it has installed solar shingles on the roofs of two buildings—one on the Kingston Campus and one on the W. Alton Jones Campus —and it has committed to ensuring that all future buildings are LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified as energy efficient. Hope Commons dining hall and the new residence halls that opened in 2007 will be the first buildings on campus to receive the certification, followed by the Center for Biotechnology and Life Sciences in Kingston and the Pell Marine Science Library and Inner Space Center at the Bay Campus, both of which are now under construction and due to open next winter.

“The new biotech center, in particular, will include several notable design features that will qualify it for LEED certification,” said Weygand. “These include an energy efficient heating and cooling system, a “green” roof that is partially covered in vegetation that will filter pollutants and reduce heating and cooling needs, a storm water treatment feature, and environmentally friendly building materials.”

The new building for the College of Pharmacy, which is due to begin construction this fall, will use a range of “green” technologies including energy recovery wheels and active chilled beams coupled with extensive use of natural light to achieve energy savings.

Spurred on by the student-run Renewable Energy Club, led by Auriane Koster ’08 and Taylor Spalt ’07, URI is also continuing to study the feasibility of installing a wind turbine to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels. Data collected in 2006 showed that the Kingston Campus does not have the wind capacity to make such an installation economical, but a site at the Bay Campus is being evaluated in collaboration with the Ocean Engineering program and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Since emissions from transportation—commuting to campus and fleet vehicle use—represents approximately one-third of the University’s carbon footprint, new strategies are being considered to reduce single-occupancy vehicle use and idling time and increase the use of public transportation and carpooling. Graduate student Rachel Sholly ’06, who helped start the student group Student Action for Sustainability in 2004, was awarded a Campus Ecology Fellowship from the National Wildlife Federation to develop and implement a clean transportation policy on campus. The policy she develops will be the basis for an effort to increase the availability and use of alternate transportation to, from, and around campus.

Education is another key element of the University’s efforts to build a more sustainable campus community, and several unique new academic programs are designed to do just that. Perhaps most notable is the nation’s first climate science/M.B.A. program, which is enrolling its first students for the fall semester.

“The business community will likely bear the brunt of the challenge to find ways to reduce the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, yet few people have the necessary training in both business and climate science to lead the way,” said Moran, who spearheaded development of the new academic program. “This unique new business-science dual degree will educate students in the application of strategic management, leadership, and ocean and climate sciences to important real-world problems.”

Undergraduate students in all disciplines will soon be offered an option to enroll in a new minor in sustainability that will examine local and global issues in relation to the environment, economy, and social equity. The minor will draw on courses from numerous disciplines and require an internship or capstone course, and its graduates will be better prepared to contribute to an environmentally sound and just society.

Students and faculty are already enthusiastic supporters of the greening of the University. In January, more than 150 faculty members and their students participated in the inaugural Focus the Nation, the country’s largest teach-in designed to create a dialogue to develop solutions to the global warming crisis. URI professors led discussions about how climate change relates to such fields of study as politics, oceanography, communication, textiles, economics, and wildlife conservation. The day included educational displays featuring massive melting blocks of ice on the Quad, an interactive online Web cast to several locations around campus, and meetings with public officials to discuss the issue.

“It was an exciting way to engage students and the public in this most important issue and generate enthusiasm for finding creative ways to address it,” said Fred Meyerson, assistant professor of demography, ecology, and environmental policy and campus coordinator of the event. “Climate change is one of the most challenging issues facing this generation of college students, and they need to understand global warming science and policy and how it will affect society and their future.”

By Todd McLeish

Photo by Michael Salerno