How Green is Your Campus?
Today at UCLA, the sustainability pipeline is bulging with new initiatives large and small, from the university's first-ever Climate Action Plan all the way down to weekly, student-run delivery of locally farmed produce.
IT SOUNDS LIKE A FAMILIAR STORY: UCLA decided to go green by buying alternative-fuel vehicles. What makes it weird is that it happened in the late '80s. The campus started addressing pollutants back when "green" referred to money and a "carbon footprint" sounded more like a high-tech shoe sole. By 1993, UCLA had its own compressed-natural-gas station so the CNG fleet could fill 'er up. The next year, a new university co-generation plant — twice as efficient as most power plants — started supplying most of the campus' electricity and heat.
New fluorescent light bulbs here, a vanpool program there, and over the years, UCLA's environmental reach swelled. Between 1990 and 2000, the campus actually reversed its emissions, producing fewer pollutants at the turn of the millennium than it had a decade earlier, notes Jack Powazek '72, M.B.A. '74, Ed.D. '01, associate vice chancellor for general services.
"Even though the square footage of buildings on campus grew by 34 percent between 1990 and 2007, including building energy-intensive buildings like labs and the new hospital, emissions rose less than 0.1 percent, thanks to all our initiatives," Powazek says. "We have accomplished a great deal, but there's more to do. We're going to ask for everyone's assistance in how they use energy, how they commute, how they recycle."
Saving the planet only gradually became the focus, adds Cully Nordby, chair of the campus' Sustainability Committee and academic director of UCLA's Institute of the Environment.
"Initially, it wasn't entirely about greenhouse gas emissions, it was about saving energy and saving money," Nordby explains. "Now it's clear that all of that has a heightened importance because of global climate change."
That awareness has led to a flood of sustainability-oriented programs scattered across campus: Students support local farming by getting fresh produce delivered weekly; researchers get tips from a roving lab team on making energy-hog labs more efficient; Bruins eat their organic salads with biodegradable corn utensils instead of indestructible plastic sporks; and frat boys and sorority girls battle it out in a "Green the Greeks" competition. The profusion of programs led UCLA to hire its first sustainability coordinator, Nurit Katz M.B.A. and M.P.P. '08. Katz will organize the tangle of programs, guided by another first — the campus' new Climate Action Plan.
What's the Plan?: Tip of the CAP
The Climate Action Plan envisions a UCLA where Styrofoam and one-use plastic water bottles have vanished, and solar panels grace the roofs of as-yet-unselected campus buildings. UC and state agreements required each UC campus to outline precisely how they will cut their current emissions back to 2000 levels by 2014, then to 1990 levels by 2020 — and UCLA plans to meet the 2020 goals eight years early.
By 2020, UCLA will achieve the equivalent of taking 12,000 smog-belching cars off the road each year. Much of the $30-million effort happens behind the scenes, including massive heating, air conditioning and ventilation retrofits that compare to taking more than 7,000 cars off the road. Most of the CAP projects will pay for themselves in less than five years, thanks to power-bill savings, says Powazek.
The CAP also highlights the gee-whiz factor of some of the university's earlier forays into green terrain. On the transportation side, UCLA's technological leaps into the future have made tailpipe emissions look like a blast from the past. Pollutants from commuting employees, cross-town students, campus shuttles and air travel are already below 1990 levels.
Another feather in the CAP is the co-generation plant.
Jet Power: The Co-gen Plant
Several UC campuses have a co-generation plant, but UCLA's is among the largest, says David Johnson, director of energy services and utilities in Facilities Management. Built in 1994, the co-gen plant is a multitasking monster, generating 70 percent of the campus' power, all of its steam for heating and a hefty helping of the cold air needed for air conditioning. It all starts with a pair of jet engines.
"We generate energy with a pair of gas turbines, which you would call a jet engine," Johnson explains. "We burn gas in the jet engines, producing a stream of hot gas that drives a turbine that spins an electric generator, producing electricity."
The blazing heat doesn't go to waste. A heat-recovery steam generator uses the 1,000-degree jet-engine exhaust to generate steam, some of which is used to generate electricity. It doesn't end there. Part of the steam is sent across campus for heating, cooking and sterilization; the rest powers high-capacity water chillers making cold water for air conditioning. On top of it all, the co-gen's electricity is cheaper and more efficiently produced than what UCLA could buy.
"Even if electricity cost the same, we'd still be coming out ahead because it's like the waste heat and steam and the chilled water are free," Johnson says. For the green icing on the sustainable cake, 7 percent of the natural gas that powers the jet engines is collected from a closed city landfill in Los Angeles' Sepulveda Pass — waste gas the city once burned.
Build It Better: Carpets and Coke Bottles
UCLA's building of the future is La Kretz Hall, the university's first officially certified green building. The building's omnipresent environmentalism makes itself known gently here: The unassuming carpet is made of recycled plastic bottles. The blue-gray paint on the walls is specially formulated to emit fewer chemicals. A light-colored roof absorbs less heat during the day so it releases less climate-altering heat at night. Drought-tolerant plants reduce storm water runoff, and pedaling to work is encouraged by providing bike racks, a shower room and changing area. Unobtrusive features throughout the building make it more efficient at heating, cooling, plumbing and lighting.
"This is the home of the Institute of the Environment, so people who work in this building are doing work that is really good for the planet," Nordby says. "Being in a building that is also good for the planet amplifies that."
The campus' Green Building Program promises to extend similar benefits to all new and majorly renovated buildings. Meanwhile, amenities in and around offices, classrooms and dorms are transforming as well. The Transportation Department has installed more bike racks to encourage carbon-free travel, the Purchasing Department has converted 80 percent of the campus to at least partially recycled paper, and offices everywhere have motion sensors on the lights.
In campus cafeterias, lunching Bruins can occasionally be seen marveling at biodegradable veggie-starch flatware, bending flexible corn forks or potato knives to explore how they differ from their disposable plastic brethren. A new sustainability coordinator for Housing & Hospitality Services, Robert Gilbert M.A. '08, is organizing efforts on the Hill, where the dining halls now compost students' leftovers instead of sending them to the landfill.
Eating Green: Fresh from the Urban Farm
Not far from the Hill, students in the Weyburn Terrace apartments have found their own food solutions. In November 2008, farmers dropped off the first boxes of fresh produce to the proud new members of a UCLA Community Supported Agriculture co-op. The CSA advocates eating locally instead of getting produce with a side of carbon-guilt from being shipped cross-country or from overseas.
The students support regional farming in exchange for weekly deliveries from the South Central Farmers, a storied group of urban agriculturalists who relocated from Los Angeles to Bakersfield after being pushed out of their community garden. The farmers deliver about 25 bushel-boxes to campus each week.
In true student style, even going all Green Acres requires a little new technology. A Facebook page devoted to the group helps members find buddies to share big boxes of veggies with, and members share recipes on the Facebook wall as they discover new foods from kale to kohlrabi. They'll connect in person soon with a CSA potluck, feasting on their farm-fresh goodies.
Education: Stick with What You Know
More than a dozen UCLA research centers have a sustainable spin, and the Institute of the Environment recently opened two more. Among their researchers are Glen MacDonald, who travels the world studying how climate change is creating devastating droughts, and Tom Smith, who is documenting the spread of tropical diseases such as malaria as they creep into formerly temperate areas where the climate is slowly heating up. In the school of engineering, researchers created new molecules that will pack more energy into biofuels, and translucent solar panels that could one day turn windows into power generators.
UCLA students eager to solve the world's problems have made the environmental science major one of the fastest-growing majors on campus. They're developing their own academic programs, like the Leaders in Sustainability certificate for business students, as well as creating programs with immediate results, such as greening campus laboratories to address their energy-hogging nature (although labs take up about 10 percent of campus space, they use about 60 percent of the campus' energy).
With all this academic attention focused on climate change and sustainability, it's no wonder the Climate Action Plan has high hopes for on-campus talent, proposing investing in faculty and students to research and develop the technological miracles that could save not just UCLA, but the world.
The future has arrived. And it will be sustained.
How Green is Your Campus?
Published: Wednesday, March 25, 2009