Sustainability on campus

09/24/09 Matt Cimitile
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In a roundtable discussion last night, sustainability leaders from five Tampa Bay area campuses addressed efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, savings from greater energy efficiency and the challenges of turning academic institutions into environmentally responsible places.

Some of the bay area’s colleges and universities are attempting to become more sustainable and environmentally conscious as societies in general tackle global environmental problems such as climate change. David Hastings, an associate professor of marine science and chemistry at Eckerd College, moderated last night’s discussion.

“Many of us have signed the President’s climate commitment which commits us to go climate neutral at some point and because we are making pretty significant efforts to go climate neutral in the future we wanted to come together and talk about the different efforts that were doing, the different sustainability efforts.”

Hastings was one of seven panelists at the Studio @ 620 last night. Other campuses involved included University of South Florida Tampa, USF St. Petersburg, Stetson Law School and St. Petersburg College.

  1. Christian Wells is director of the Office of Sustainability and Associate Professor of Anthropology at USF Tampa. “I would also underscore or stress the role of curriculum, it is very important in raising awareness. I think a lot of times students have a lot of information coming out them for various causes and by building in elements of principles of sustainability into the curriculum that is something they will have to deal with on a daily basis.”

Much of the roundtable discussion centered on the economics of sustainability projects, both the costs and benefits. John Dorsey, an assistant professor of Environmental Policy at USF St. Petersburg, discussed the motivation behind a lot of decision-making involving environmental efforts on campus. “What drives a lot of decisions is cost, cutting down cost by having more efficient technologies. In a way the sustainability thing is sort of an environmental, were doing it to help the Earth and so forth but when you’re looking at it from this stand point of those who are looking at the designs and technologies, part of it is driven by lowering costs, it’s an economic incentive to put in new things and put in more efficient technologies. “

So far, some sustainability efforts are making an environmental impact while saving money for campuses. Diana Wright, energy coordinator for St. Petersburg College, said that performing energy audits and installing lighting retrofits and motion sensors has produced major savings of money and carbon. “In the last year, if you compared fiscal year 2009 with the previous year 2008 we saved over $360,000 in just one year. We were able to take off, it’s equivalent to removing 310 cars off the road or supplying electricity to 235 homes or planting about 43,000 trees.”

While significant benefits can come with greater energy efficiency and alternative sources to power campuses, problems still persist in reducing the carbon footprint of academic institutions. Panelists cited the difficulty in communicating between numerous colleges and auxiliaries on a campus when trying to estimate total energy used and possible savings from sustainable efforts. Also, it has been hard to find major funding to invest in large-scale alternative energy sources like solar and wind that could reduce carbon dioxide and dependence on fossil fuels.

But Alison Ormsby, associate professor of environmental studies at Eckerd, said that with a bad economy and tuition driven institutions, simple behavioral changes like turning off lights and driving less can add major savings in the long-run. “I think for me and for our campus the low hanging fruit is behavioral change. It’s really frustrating to me that everyone is talking about the techno fix and buying panels and all these things we cannot afford now because were tuition driven and the economy is bad. We have to change our behavior and those small changes in behavior can add to a large savings, economic and environmental savings.”

Hastings said he hopes bay area’s campus sustainability leaders will continue to meet in the future to discuss efforts taking place at each other’s campuses that will spark bigger and better ideas to create sustainable campuses and communities.

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