Campus making progress on sustainability
Staff members have estimated the Urbana campus’s carbon footprint by inventorying the amount of greenhouse gases it produces, and the results “look pretty typical for a very large university,” according to Richard Warner, director of the Office of Sustainability.
The inventory, a requirement of the American Colleges and University Presidents Climate Commitment signed by Chancellor Richard Herman in February 2008, indicated that during fiscal year 2008 the campus produced 505,272 metric tons of carbon emissions, the majority – 376,459 metric tons – by burning coal, oil and gas at Abbott Power Plant and other on-site plants. Emissions from purchased electricity totaled 109,143 metric tons, and employees commuting in their personal vehicles produced another 14,014 metric tons of carbon emissions.
Last year, Herman set campus goals of reducing overall energy use by 10 percent over the next three years, and reducing energy use by 17 percent over five years to return the campus to its energy use level in 1990.
The campus already has made substantial inroads through projects such as retrocommissioning heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems in the facilities that are the major energy consumers. Through December 2008, consumption was reduced by an average of 27 percent in seven buildings that had been retrocommissioned, saving more than $1 million in energy costs and reducing carbon emissions by 4,828 metric tons. Other projects such as the Lighting Retrofit Project, which is expected to save the university $1 million annually in energy costs by replacing or upgrading lighting systems, and the implementation of utilities metering and billing systems for campus units also are making progress.
The Office of Sustainability, one of two entities that Herman established to provide leadership for the numerous sustainability initiatives under way on campus, works with campus units, student groups and community partners to develop and promote engagement activities and enhance communication about sustainability initiatives. The Campus Sustainability Council, which Herman chairs, provides strategic direction and oversight.
“The establishment of a sustainability office is an important and trendy thing to do right now,” Warner said. “Many campuses are doing it.” Illinois’ sustainability efforts are unique in that Illinois is striving to be a strategic leader through educational programs, research and public engagement activities that address two long-term global societal sustainability challenges: preserving natural ecosystems and creating human-dominated ecosystems that mimic natural ecosystem services while providing essential human services; and sustainably raising living standards for the world’s poor.
Four high-level goals have been proposed for the UI to help it achieve its objective of becoming a strategic leader and catalyst for identifying and testing creative solutions to the societal grand challenges (see box on page 1). Those goals are described in a vision statement for the campus sustainability initiatives recently drafted by Warner and Barbara Minsker, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and an associate provost fellow.
The Strategic Opportunity in Global Sustainability Challenges: A Vision for the UI at Urbana-Champaign was developed “with wide community and stakeholder involvement,” Warner said, including a recent half-day meeting that allowed interested parties to provide input. About 50 people attended and offered their insights about what the campus sustainability objectives should be during the next few years.
“This is really a grand vision and speaks to what place the UI will have in these major global issues,” Warner said. “The stakeholder and community involvement in this is important. We’re looking for ways to increase our transparency about our plans and activities. We’re looking for ways that, as we move forward and address goals, everyone can see themselves in those goals.”
This summer, campus
officials will focus on creating measurable next steps to be taken to achieve the sustainability goals, Warner said.
Community agencies and private-sector businesses are very interested in working with the UI on sustainability initiatives, Warner said. “We’re talking about things that we want to get done together,” such as a local foods movement. “We’re starting to share our best practices in our facilities operations with the cities. There’s also a lot of interest in the communities about alternative energy sources and other things that we could do together that are novel approaches to energy generation and conservation and would make this region stand out.”
Facilities and Services Division is working with a student group, Community Organized Recycling Efforts, in developing the Champaign-Urbana Green Business Association. The association, expected to open within the next few weeks, intends to establish constructive relationships among businesses and public agencies in which agencies educate and provide technical assistance to help businesses reduce their environmental impact.
A student-operated farm that went into production on campus this spring will put locally grown, fresh vegetables and fruits on the table for students and other people who eat in campus dining halls.
A cooperative venture of the department of natural resources and environmental sciences, the Horticulture Club, and Students for Environmental Concerns, the farm will not only supply fresh produce for campus diners, it also will contribute to campus sustainability initiatives by reducing the carbon emissions associated with transporting fresh produce from distant farms to campus. The farm also will provide a laboratory for students to learn about fruit and vegetable farming and for researchers to investigate sustainable agriculture technology.
The horticulture program allocated 2 acres of farmland at the southwest corner of Lincoln Avenue and Windsor Road in Urbana for the farm’s inaugural growing season, but that may increase to 5 acres next year and to 10 acres for the third year if the project is successful.
Crops are being selected and planted to coincide with Dining Services’ needs. This spring, a crop of salad greens was planted, some of which may be harvested for students’ consumption before the spring semester ends in mid-May, when tomatoes, peppers, melons, sweet corn and herbs also will be planted.
About 300 fruit trees – including peach and apple trees – will be planted as well but will not begin producing fruit until the fall of 2010 at the earliest.
Dining Services has requested strawberries and blueberries – which will come from the UI’s Dixon Springs Agricultural Center in southern Illinois this year - and cucumbers, squash and cantaloupe as well, according to Dawn Aubrey, senior assistant director of Dining Services. As the student farm grows and diversifies, more of those crops may become available locally.
“We’re trying to gear up to produce as much as we can when the students are back on campus for the fall semester,” said Bruce Branham, interim head and a professor of NRES. “But we have so much activity on campus during the summer because of camps that Dining Services has a pretty significant demand for food throughout the summer.”
A recent graduate has been hired as farm manager, and two student interns will help tend and harvest crops throughout the summer. Volunteers probably will need to be recruited from student groups to help with the fall harvest because bringing in vegetables is labor intensive.
The long-term goal for the farm is not just to produce food for campus diners but also to produce food for delivery to other universities, Branham said.
“If we’re going to have an impact, we have to be able to make enough food to make a difference. There are a lot of universities that have student farms but they are, in my experience, more hobbies than actual operations that produce a significant amount of food. Our goal is to essentially become self-sufficient to where we can sell enough produce at market rates to Dining Services to fund the operation and produce enough food to really make a difference.
“Two to four years down the road, we may start canning food to extend the season and make a significant impact. My ultimate goal is for us to be the Newman’s Own of university food systems,” said Branham, referring to the food company founded by Paul Newman, the actor and philanthropist who died last September.
Branham envisions selling preserved produce under a university-branded label a few years from now. To start that type of operation, funding would need to be found to upgrade a food-processing lab in the department of food science and human nutrition to human-consumption standards. Student interns could be employed to process the food, perhaps as part of a scholarship program.
If this year’s harvests yield more than Dining Services can use, the overage may be donated to local food banks, Branham said.
To help extend the relatively short growing season in Central Illinois, the farm will use three hoop houses – unheated greenhouses constructed from large hoops covered by heavyweight plastic that use solar energy for heating and the wind for cooling.
The farm also will use low-impact production systems – minimizing pesticide usage and using natural fertilizers such as cover crops and compost.
“We may have to treat for some insect and disease pests, but we will minimize pesticide usage in our production system,” Branham said. Since Dining Services requires that the sweet corn be shucked prior to delivery, the farm workers can cut off any rootworm damage, which typically occurs at the tips of the ears, when they shuck the corn, eliminating the need for a corn rootworm insecticide application.
The farm’s first year of operations is being funded by a $50,000 grant from the Student Sustainability Committee, which decides how to spend the $5 per semester sustainability fee paid by students to support eco-friendly projects on campus.
Buying locally grown food from the student-run, sustainable farm on campus is just one of several eco-friendly initiatives that University Housing Dining Services has under way, according to Dawn Aubrey, senior assistant director of Dining Services.
Currently one-fourth – or about $3 million – of the food and beverages served in campus residence halls annually is produced and/or processed locally, which is defined as being within a four-hour radius of Champaign-Urbana. Dining Services plans to increase that percentage, helping not only the local economy but also reducing emissions that would be generated by vehicles transporting the products.
One of the local vendors is Prairie Farms, which buys raw milk produced by the UI’s herd of 210 dairy cows, processes it and sells it back to Dining Services as pasteurized milk, yogurt, cottage cheese and creamer.
“We’re really pleased that we’re able to do that,” Aubrey said. “We view sustainability as our duty. We have an obligation to our students, to the community and ultimately globally. We see this as our responsibility and are approaching it from a variety of vantage points.”
The dining halls at Illinois Street Residence Halls, Gregory Drive Residence Halls and Lincoln Avenue Residence Halls currently supply used fryer oil weekly to two biodiesel programs on campus, one of which is used for fuel for university vehicles; the other supplies fuel for city buses. The oil can be converted to biodiesel at a 1:1 ratio, Aubrey said.
This fall, the other program, Engineers Without Borders, plans to start collecting and reprocessing all of Dining Services’ waste vegetable oil – about 565 gallons a week.
To reduce food waste, water usage and the amount of dishwashing chemicals used, the dining halls have begun replacing plastic dining trays with plates. Since PAR went trayless last August, food waste has been reduced by 40 percent, based on a garbage-bag count. Water consumption is estimated to have diminished by more than 900 gallons a day – or more than 194,100 gallons per academic year. The trayless initiative will save 827 pounds of solid dish detergent and 50 gallons of rinse additive each academic year.
LAR went trayless in January. Florida Avenue Residence Halls will do so this fall, and ISR will do so in August 2011. When the Ikenberry Commons dining hall under construction opens for the fall semester 2010, it will replace the Peabody and Gregory dining facilities and will be trayless as well.
But even the dining facilities’ biodegradable food waste won’t be going to waste anymore. Students for Environmental Concerns, the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, Engineers Without Borders and the Environmental Change Institute are working with Dining Services on a composting project using food waste, leaves and other biodegradable materials. In addition to using the compost as fertilizer for the student-farm plot, Engineers Without Borders will be using it to generate methane gas, which will be captured in a tank and might be used to power a small generator and produce heat or electricity. ECI, which is helping fund the compost project, will be calculating the carbon footprint of food waste being composted versus its going to a landfill.
“A lot of this is hands-on experience and a mini-pilot study to see what it would take to compost this waste,” said Wesley Jarrell, who is interim director of ECI, a faculty member in the department of natural resources and environmental sciences and faculty adviser to Students for Environmental Concerns. “The hope is we’ll have at least a couple of student farm areas that will be producing food this summer and we can make sure we recycle the food directly through the compost back onto that land, so it will close the cycle for at least a little bit of the food that we’re putting into our food system.
“There’s tremendous potential here on campus to quantify how much organic byproduct we’re producing that we don’t use very effectively or that we pay to get rid of by taking to a landfill. So, let’s look at our carbon footprint and our expenses and see if we can’t use some of the land we have on the South Farm to set up modest-cost systems to produce high-quality soil amendments that perhaps have by-product energy such as methane, and demonstrate that we can do this integrated design and execution to lower our carbon footprint and save money.”
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