Improving Campus Sustainability: The Authentic Results from Higher Education on Environmental Sustainability, Student Engagement, and Financial Effectiveness

Article excerpt

Sustainability at the University of Central Oklahoma

In 2001 the University of Central Oklahoma (UCO) faced a bleak future relative to campus infrastructure. HVAC systems had completely crashed in two major campus buildings and the average age of air conditioning and chiller units was over 40 years. Moreover, the State of Oklahoma allocated less than $1 million per year to the university to provide for all the capital needs of a university of 15,000 students and 2 million square feet of conditioned space.

Interestingly, this overwhelming challenge put UCO on the path to eventually become one of the nation's most honored schools for sustainability. UCO began to solve its infrastructure nightmare by replacing all the ancient units with new, energy efficient systems. The financial savings on utility charges provided more than ample funds to provide a stream of revenue to retire the debt of buying all the new systems. Soon the school completely replaced all lighting systems and every water delivery and restroom fixtures with low energy use and low water use systems, utilizing the same "performance contract" model.

Suddenly UCO was using 25% less water and energy. Waste water streams were reduced. This experience led the university to continue to find ways to create a sustainable environment in a fiscally responsible way. Soon the school elected to use 100% wind generated power from the local utility company. Over the 2 1/2 years since switching, the cost of wind power has averaged to be equal to the cost of carbon-based electricity. Again, UCO was responsible to the Earth and to the citizens and students of UCO who entrust their tax and tuition dollars to the most effective use. The carbon footprint reduction at UCO was becoming increasingly noticeable. Students, faculty, staff, and administrators began to coalesce around the idea that a real difference was being made, that the values of the university and the students were being expressed in discernable and tangible ways.

Following these major energy reduction and sustainability projects, the campus erupted with innovative and creative responses to other challenges and opportunities. The university motor pool created a mini-refinery to convert used cooking grease into a high performance bio-diesel for all UCO equipment and vehicles that ran on diesel. A cookie-cutter recycling program leapt to life with paper, cans, plastics, batteries, solvents, fluorescents, cardboard and much more being collected office by office.

The grounds crews began to design tree planting and other landscaping techniques to reduce water usage and to provide maximum shade on buildings to reduce cooling needs. Computerized irrigation systems paid for themselves with water reductions. Low impact gardens were designed by botany and biology faculty to provide on-campus study sites and to meet local ecosystem limits.

UCO, chronically challenged with parking shortages, determined that more paving was not sustainable, instead adding a high demand "bum-a-bike" program and high occupancy vehicle parking lots in the most desirable and closely-accessible parking lots. Instead of adding parking spaces to meet demand, the school has been able to manage demand with these programs and financial support for local mass transit. The costs of these programs are much less than the cost to purchase and tear down houses, construct, and maintain new paved parking.

A multitude of student, faculty and staff suggestions were implemented. In addition to the above, these implemented suggestions included motion sensor light fixtures and the use of a thermal storage tank that would fill and chill water in non-peak times. The local utility providers structured new and reduced rates for the school due to changing use from high-demand peaks to non-peak times. The university committed to meet LEED certification energy saving standards on all new construction in order to minimize future operational costs and carbon footprints. …