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Trends in Green (Sustainable Innovations On Campus)

Green to Gold

Sustainability center reaching maturity at Southeastern Louisiana University.

At Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, green and gold are more than the official colors of the university.

These days the colors have taken on new significance: green for the ambitious environmental and sustainability initiative that is making the campus — in the words of some independent observers — possibly the greenest institution in the state; and gold for the precious energy dollars saved in a time of increasingly tightened budgets.

Precise energy management in buildings, solar panels to generate electricity and hot water, biodiesel from spent cooking oil and grease, major increases in recycling with a reduction in landfill waste, a tree and plant farm for university landscaping, and wise use of rainwater runoff are just some of the elements of the new Sustainability Center being developed on Southeastern’s north campus.

And more innovations are planned.

With a goal to be 80 percent off the grid by 2020, Southeastern is fast earning a reputation as the greenest university in the state, if not the South.

“We owe taxpayers and tuition-paying students a responsibility to be as efficient as possible in all areas. Certainly that includes energy usage,” says Southeastern President John L. Crain. “Our faculty, staff and students have demonstrated a strong desire to be on the leading edge in sustainability efforts. From a pure budget standpoint, this has made a significant difference in the financial picture of the university.”

Budgetary Incentives

“The effort was born out of necessity,” explains director of Physical Plant Byron Patterson, who is leading the effort. “Budget cuts forced us to think in terms of economics.”

In 2010, the university’s initial efforts with energy conservation and biofuel production saved the university $1.2 million, encouraging the plant staff to look for additional savings.

Early efforts, Patterson notes, included building a training center to prepare staff to handle environmental controls adjustments and repairs in the various campus buildings. This precluded the need to utilize pricey environmental control consultants. The installation of an energy center, which monitors temperature and humidity in nearly every building, also gave staff more remote control of building environments.

The computer system allows the staff to recommission a building every year or so, a process Patterson likens to “tuning a car,” in order to catch problems early and to maximize energy efficiency.

One of the most successful innovations on campus has been the installation of solar panels to generate hot water in various buildings, funded largely by the Southeastern Student Tech Fee Committee, which provides grants to university departments for technology that has strong educational applicability. Eventually solar panels will be used for an increasing number of buildings, including residence halls.

Solar panels are also used to generate electricity, helping to power part of the Physical Plant office and the Sustainability Center.

Educational Value

All of the energy efforts are also used in research by students in the university’s Energy Engineering Technology program.

“Solar energy to generate electricity is basically the ‘eye candy’ of green power,” Patterson says. “The technology is not nearly as effective and efficient as solar power to generate hot water. But it does provide a source of energy that needs to be researched and evaluated, so it’s important our students have access to a photovoltaic system.”

Other elements in the Sustainability Center include:

Recycling. By eventually recycling 80 percent of waste on campus, the university earns money on recycled products and saves on costs associated with waste disposal.

Biofuels. The center already operates one small biodiesel generating plant, which powers lawnmowers, tractors and other landscape equipment. The Sustainability Center will incorporate another, much larger unit to generate enough fuel to run all oncampus shuttle buses.

Water conservation. With one rainwater retention pond in place and two more under construction, the Center will self-generate all water required to propagate plants and trees and for other purposes in the Center.

Education center. Two technology-rich classrooms, designed in large part by engineering technology students to facilitate study and research, are included for use in student research, instruction and other educational activities.

Biomass Unit. Future plans call for a large biomass unit to cleanly burn campus refuse and other feedstock to power the entire Sustainability Center.

Whether it’s surveying the land and laying out the dimensions for a rainwater run-off pond, designing the frames to support solar panels, or measuring energy obtained through various sources, students at Southeastern are getting hands-on technological and research opportunities as they assist in helping the university build one of the foremost Sustainability Centers in the South.

This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of College Planning & Management.

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