Placing Campus Efficiency Efforts in their Environmental Context

Friday, November 13, 2009 |

By Chris Stratton, Graduate Teaching Fellow – Environmental Studies
University of Oregon

How can we use technology to achieve the things we want and need while using less energy? Colleges and universities everywhere are working to answer this question by first measuring their own environmental impact through campus monitoring and periodic reports. In 2007, graduate students in the University of Oregon’s Environmental Studies program, in collaboration with the university’s Office of Sustainability, drafted the Campus Sustainability Assessment.

The 2007 assessment identifies eleven campus sustainability indicators: Governance, Endowment Investment, Academics and Culture, Materials Management, Food, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Energy, Transportation, Water, Landscape and Buildings. This broad range of categories reminds us just how intertwined our behaviors are with our environment. But there are clearly opportunities within these categories to utilize technology to monitor and improve our practices.

Among the categories that readily lend themselves to quantification, the Energy and Greenhouse Gas indicators seem the most appropriate for technology-assisted assessment. On this front, the university has begun equipping campus buildings with real-time electricity meters that can be monitored remotely from a central location. This central real-time monitoring allows university administrators to recognize trends that have previously gone unnoticed. Hmm…why does this building use so much more energy than this other one, even though they have the same square footage? These investments in technology allow administrators to focus on the most effective campus renovation efforts, saving money and lessening environmental impacts in the process.

These electronic meters are also being linked to energy “kiosks” displayed prominently within the buildings themselves to provide users with real-time feedback on their energy consumption and CO2 emissions. These kiosks address environmental impacts by engaging with individual users’ behavior patterns. Over time, they have the potential to encourage energy conservation through improved information. My other alma mater, Oberlin College, has used similar energy kiosks to create efficiency competitions among campus dorms, with prizes going to the winners. In the first such competition, dorms reduced their energy use 32 percent on average. In addition, pre- and post-competition surveys indicated an increased “connectedness to nature” among participants.

We are currently in the process of incorporating the lessons from our own and others’ campus sustainability efforts to revise the University of Oregon Campus Sustainability Assessment. This version will include revised metrics and figures and compare UO’s campus to other campuses as well as to our best guess of what a truly sustainable level for each metric might be. We are also drawing on multiple independent campus sustainability frameworks; the most prominent among them include the Sustainable Endowments Green Report Card and the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS) framework.

Adopting an Integrated Approach to Solution Design
The architect Elliel Saarinen once said, “Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context….” Whenever we are designing something – a building, a computer, a network, an energy system – to build it well we must consider its role within the larger context. If we do this at every level, if we keep considering our designs in their next larger context, we soon realize that the earth is the ultimate context for all our endeavors; it is the ultimate arbiter of whether our designs are a success or a failure. In order for our designs – or our adoption – of energy efficient computers to be successful from an environmental perspective, they must be considered within their larger economic context. (And that economy must itself be designed within its larger context).

Ecosystems are just that – systems. Nothing occurs in isolation – interdependence is the rule. So, yes, let’s adopt more energy efficient technology. Let’s use technology to get out information and change our environmental habits. But let’s also remember why we’re going to all this trouble. Let us always consider our efforts in their ultimate context, so that in the end we truly are making progress towards our real goal: a sustainable society.

1 comment:

Nina said...

This would be a great place to begin implementing being more efficient! I have some similar ideas I would like to share with you as well at

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