By Monica Chapman
This is one in a series of stories on new university initiatives aimed at ensuring a quality academic experience for students by improving service, increasing efficiency or identifying new resources or savings. The initiatives were profiled at an Oct. 7 Vision OHIO Information Session.
This holiday season, you'll find a flourishing market for anything green, from Ecoist handbags (fashioned out of misprinted candy wrappers) to carbon offsets (which can be donated in the recipient's name). But this year, Sustainability Coordinator Sonia Marcus is looking past the holiday shopping list to focus on resolutions. For Ohio University, that means thinking beyond composters and solar arrays and talking about the big picture.
"What we have is a lot of one-off projects," Marcus said. "Those projects are certainly valuable and interesting, but in order to take our sustainability efforts to the next level, we need to spend some time and effort on the planning process to guide all of our efforts, departments and programs."
Ohio University has clearly voiced its resolution to become more energy efficient and environmentally friendly in the years ahead. As one of several key initiatives under the Vision OHIO umbrella, sustainability has been identified as a top university priority.
The question, according to Marcus, is how to take this new way of thinking and incorporate it into the university's day-to-day operations.
"I think we all recognize that if we're serious about tackling sustainability issues here at the university, we're going to need to take on the really tough problems, like where we get our energy and how we choose to utilize resources," she said. "Those problems are not addressed on a micro scale. They require collaboration between many different departments and units. They require a wide degree of support from the campus community and substantial capital investments. They have to be guided by an overall vision that we have for the campus as a whole."
Planning for the future
To get this project off to a good start, newly retired administrator John Kotowski, a 32-year Ohio University veteran, spent his last days as associate vice president for facilities drafting a campuswide sustainability planning proposal. The proposal -- which received an unofficial blessing from the Board of Trustees at its October meeting -- will lead Ohio University to develop within the next year a comprehensive plan to address institutional priorities within the sustainability arena.
According to Marcus, a common misstep of universities is to create a master plan before earning the buy-in of their constituents. And institutional buy-in, she argues, is the result of demonstrated successes.
In the case of Ohio University, there are plenty of recent success stories to tout. In March, President Roderick J. McDavis signed on to the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, which requires that the university move toward climate neutrality through the development of a comprehensive plan to reduce greenhouse gases. In August, the university installed the largest in-vessel composting unit on any U.S. college or university campus. And in October, the Board of Trustees approved the university's House Bill 251 Implementation Plan, which seeks to reduce the energy intensity of our campus by at least 20 percent by 2014, using 2004 as the benchmark year.
According to Marcus, these accomplishments position the university well to begin a comprehensive planning process.
"We are at an ideal moment for beginning to engage in a more comprehensive planning process because we do have that community support here that stretches across all different levels of the university," she said. "We have general agreement that we need to prioritize this effort, and we have a sense that change is possible."
Involving the university community
Marcus is now soliciting input on how best to involve stakeholders in the process. Despite overwhelming public interest, she said it can be a challenge to meaningfully engage the broader campus population in decisions that require a high level of technical expertise on campus systems and the energy environment.
Tracking energy usage poses another challenge.
According to Director of Energy Management Ron Chapman, some energy increases easily can be attributed to major installations, such as the addition of micro-fridges in the residence halls. But these instances are the exception, rather than the rule.
What we do know, Marcus said, is that the energy usage of each individual member of the campus goes up each year.
Chapman said philosophical changes toward greater resource sharing and the purchase of Energy Star-rated equipment would aid sustainability efforts, but changing personal habits is key.
"We as users are the culprits," he said. "If we could get our entire campus population to just shut off lights and electric-consuming devices when they are not in their rooms or offices, we'd be on the right track."
Curbing incremental increases
If the university's energy forecasting model is correct, the institution will be heading in the right direction by fiscal 2011.
That's the year Chapman eliminates a 1.5 percent annual growth element from electric use projections. This hike in projected electric use -- above and beyond increases due to total square footage additions on campus -- has been included because of the institution's past history of use.
"We are presuming that our sustainability initiatives will result in a direct curbing of our overall use of all utilities, but in particular, our electric," Chapman said. "How better to state our commitment than to drop this element of the increase from the budget?"
Though sustainability efforts can generate savings on utility bills, cost-efficient doesn't always equal energy efficient -- a differentiation that Marcus is quick to draw.
"A good sustainability plan can have positive impact of curbing growth in utility costs, but the goal of the plan is sustainability and energy conservation, not cost savings. Cost savings are a byproduct," Marcus said. "What we're trying to do is fundamentally change Ohio University's relationship with natural resources."