The Day of Energy Policy

Posted on January 7, 2009. Filed under: sustainability | Tags: , , , , , , , , , |

Today was perhaps the biggest day ever for energy policy at Rice University. Famed Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens presented his vision for weaning the United States off of foreign oil to a packed auditorium on the Rice campus in the energy capital of the world, Houston. The thrust of the Pickens Plan features a significant investment in wind power (though curiously he hardly mentioned this at all in his talk), accompanied by a shift of natural gas away from electricity generation to use as a fuel for 18-wheelers and other large trucks (present battery technology won’t power these vehicles). True to Texan mythology, this is no small effort. Mr. Pickens has already spent $50 million to promote his plan; he intends to spend tens of millions more.

From my perspective, the visit by Mr. Pickens was not Rice’s lead energy policy headline for the day. That distinction is reserved for our university president, who sent an email to the entire Rice community announcing a Building Temperature Policy, outlining a series of tangible steps that members of our community can take to save energy, and calling for a broader culture of energy conservation on our campus. The Pickens event will garner media attention, enliven classroom discussions for the classes that attended, and perhaps even lead some students to focus their careers on energy. However, the Building Temperature Policy – as unglamorous as it sounds – is the real game changer.

Houston’s climate is quite similar to that of New Orleans or Tampa. That is, hot and humid. Air conditioning – providing relief from both the heat and humidity – was one of the technologies that enabled Houston (and the South for that matter) to grow into the major population and economic center that it is today. For years, locals used to boast that Houston was the “world’s most air conditioned city,” and anyone who has visited can attest that thermostats across this city are set to levels that are almost uncomfortably cold during our long, hot summers. It is not uncommon for women on our campus to wear sweaters indoors during the summer, and we even have instances where some employees use space heaters to counteract the aggressively cold air conditioning. We have taken a technology that has rendered our heat and humidity a mere inconvenience (rather than a threat to human life) and abused it. On our campus, air conditioning is our primary energy expenditure, and this is where we believe a lot of “low hanging fruit” can be found to cut our utility bills and reduce our carbon footprint.

In the 4+ years that I have worked as a campus sustainability professional, I have become involved in a variety of energy conservation efforts, from awareness campaigns to dorm energy competitions to design reviews to operational changes in facilities. There have been a number of successes along the way, mixed in with a healthy dose of frustrating moments (despite working with good, well-intentioned people). What I have come to conclude is that in absence of a comprehensive policy that outlines temperature settings, building hours, off-hour setbacks, and general expectations related to thermal comfort, we’d forever be acting in a piecemeal fashion, making adjustments here and there as time permitted, but never fully realizing the financial and environmental savings that would come with a comprehensive approach.

So why should it be so hard to create indoor conditions without a formal policy such that a worker doesn’t have to wear a sweater indoors when it’s 95 degrees and humid outside? In the absence of guidelines, the facilities personnel who actually set space temperatures are inclined to please their customers rather than conserve energy, and in doing so a space is often cooled to a level that satisfies the most heat-sensitive building occupant, as fewer people will complain about too much air conditioning than too little. Further, in the absence of guidelines, air conditioning schedules for buildings are gradually eroded as requests come in for off-hour (over-)cooling that are then never re-set, eventually leading to 24/7 over-cooling for an entire building. Facilities workers are busy and they want customers to be happy. If a customer demands that his office be cooled to 70 degrees instead of 76, why would the responding facility worker not make the change if no such policy existed to prevent it? And what if he took a conscientious stand and refused to make the change, but had no policy to fall back upon? That worker would likely be overruled.  And let us also not overlook that the customer, freed from the burden of paying their own energy bill in the workplace, will consume energy in ways that they wouldn’t dream of doing at home.

In his talk, Mr. Pickens made numerous references to the first 100 days of the Obama administration, and the need to enact a comprehensive national energy plan within that timespan. We’ll have our own first 100 days on campus as we begin rolling-out our building temperature policy, communicating with our campus community, and setting implementation processes and milestones. I see this as happening not a moment too soon. In this economic climate, universities need financial savings, and energy efficiency can be one of the ways to help keep universities strong. Imagine what even a 5% reduction in energy costs could do for your university? For us, that’s close to a million dollars. And rest assured that as soon as the economy recovers, the soaring energy prices that we witnessed in the first 8-9 months of 2008 will return.

This will be nothing compared to what’s further ahead. Quite chillingly, in his final remark during the question and answer session, Mr. Pickens noted in a rather off-hand way that we have perhaps 20-30 years worth of recoverable domestic natural gas reserves left, but that that’s enough of a bridge (and, in his view, the only available bridge) for us to cross as we race to develop new technologies to feed the energy demands of America. I suspect that crossing that bridge might take on the appearance of an Indiana Jones movie, as we race desperately to safety while the structure crumbles beneath our feet. Where does your campus’s power come from? We generate ours through natural gas fired cogeneration turbines, and we also purchase electricity from the grid that is generated in large part from natural gas. Clearly, we have long-term vulnerabilities and unavoidable challenges ahead. A building temperature policy is an important step, but ultimately each university will need to consider developing its own energy plan for the future. As Mr. Pickens joked, it’s better to be a fool with a plan than a genius with no plan at all.  Let’s hope that in academia, we’re geniuses with plans, because otherwise we’ll be nothing but planless fools.

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Welcome to Greening the Campus: Inside the World of the Campus Sustainability Professional

Posted on June 9, 2008. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , |

As I begin typing this post, our world population sits ever so temporarily at an estimated 6,673,085,292. Here in the United States, at the exact same moment, our population is 304,293,472, and thanks to a webcam trained on the National Debt Clock near Times Square in New York City, I know that this U.S. population at this precise moment in time carries with it a national debt of $9,206,663,047,891.

As I continue to sneak peeks at the U.S. Census Bureau’s population clocks, I’m observing that the US population increases by one person about every 10 seconds, while the world population increases by about 25-30 persons in that time. And how fast is our U.S. national debt rising? The rate of increase is almost $1,000 per second.

Now try Googling the phrase “environmental debt clock”. As of this writing, you will find no results for this search, yet we know that somewhere around 1980, the world population’s hunger for natural resources pushed our ecological footprint beyond 1 earth. We are no longer living off the “interest” of the land; we are in fact drawing down our natural capital. We are now living in an era of environmental debt. Despite the fact that we Americans account for only 4.5% of the world’s population, this world environmental debt has a distinctly American flavor, as our country consumes about 25-30% of the world’s resources. These are credit card times, and the rest of the world aspires to live like us. Who can blame them?

I spent most of the 1990s in Charlottesville, Virginia, home of Thomas Jefferson, and attended graduate school at the University of Virginia, the school that he founded and designed. People in Charlottesville speak of Mr. Jefferson in the present tense, like he’s a local celebrity that you might spot holding forth with friends in a corner booth at a café, or quietly thumbing through the back stacks of an antiquarian bookshop, despite the fact that he died almost 200 years ago (July 4, 1826 to be exact). Like many in Charlottesville, I was (and am) deeply influenced by Jefferson. An interdisciplinary thinker and prolific writer, Jefferson’s ideas are better documented than perhaps any other historic figure before the age of television. In my view, one of Jefferson’s letters is of such importance to our present thinking about sustainability that it should be considered as nothing less than canonical. In 1789, Jefferson expressed the following thoughts on debt and our obligations to future generations in a letter to James Madison:

“…no man can, by natural right, oblige the lands he occupied, or the persons who succeed him in that occupation, to the payment of debts contracted by him. For if he could, he might during his own life, eat up the usufruct of the lands for several generations to come; and then the lands would belong to the dead, and not to the living.”

The word usufruct is a legal term describing one’s right to use property belonging to another provided that that property is not damaged in any way. Without using the term sustainability, that’s exactly what Jefferson has described. Jefferson’s position is that no generation has the right to burden future generations with economic or environmental debts, or to use land in a manner that incurs such debt. Imagine if you could assign your student loans or your home mortgage to your unborn grandchildren. The very idea sounds absurd, but that’s exactly what we’re doing from an environmental perspective. I should note however that Jefferson had his own complex relationship with the concept of debt. He was a man of many talents, but money management was not one of them, and he died deeply in debt.

Campus sustainability professionals occupy a unique space. We are charged with helping to change our institutions in ways that end the placement of additional environmental burdens on future generations, and to even begin lifting some of those existing burdens through acts of restoration. We are also asked to be partners in reorienting the curriculum and in shaping student life so that the graduates of our schools understand the concepts of sustainability and possess a sense of responsibility for the future. Our potential reach is quite broad. My intent in establishing this blog is to provide a view into the day-to-day issues and activities of this emerging profession, to offer observations, to share lessons, and to hopefully promote knowledge-sharing and dialogue in this exhilarating race against time.

Speaking of time, in the 45 minutes that I have spent putting my thoughts into words, the world’s population has increased by another 10,000 – which is twice the size of the student body at my workplace, Rice University. In that same time, we’ve added another 414 persons to the U.S. population, and they will consume resources in a manner disproportionate to the rest of the world. Our country has slid another $2.8 million further into debt, and globally we have sunk by some unmeasured amount deeper into environmental debt, thus impoverishing our future generations. This is a world that belongs to the dead. But yet, I’m energized by the notion that at this moment in our history, we now understand and have the know-how to implement many of the dramatic changes that are necessary to produce a lasting positive impact for many generations to come. The campus sustainability professional is one of many professions on the frontlines of delivering this change. What is our goal? Nothing short of a future world that belongs to the living. Jefferson would be pleased.

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    Insights and observations on the campus greening movement, from the perspective of a campus sustainability professional


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