The Drive for Power ; Environmental Studies Surge - but So Do Energy-Busting Buildings and Amenities

By Mark Clayton writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, July 3, 2001 | Go to article overview

The Drive for Power ; Environmental Studies Surge - but So Do Energy-Busting Buildings and Amenities


Mark Clayton writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


When Andrew Posner wants to make a fruit smoothie in the kitchen blender in his unconventional dorm, he does the natural thing - he hops on a bicycle to generate the power to run it.

California's rolling blackouts are no problem for Mr. Posner and other energy-efficient students living in Humboldt State University's Campus Center for Appropriate Technology in Arcata. A windmill, solar panels, a bio-diesel generator, and people like Posner power the place.

A decade ago, Humboldt's CCAT students celebrated energy independence by chopping power lines linking them to the state's power grid. But a few weeks ago, they reconnected to help the nowpower-short state by pumping energy back into the grid. During the day, the energy meter runs backwards - forward a little at night. Net result: no electric bill.

Then there's Oberlin College in Ohio, which has a brand new environmental center so stingy with energy that it also generates extra electricity from solar panels on its roof.

Both are great examples of campus energy frugality. And they form a nearly perfect misrepresentation of energy use on America's college campuses, which collectively are among the nation's worst energy hogs. Instead of getting more efficient as

technology has improved and consciousness has risen, the nation's campuses are no more efficient than in the 1980s and have, over all, become bigger power users in the past decade. With energy the second-biggest expense on campus after labor costs, it's one big reason tuition costs are rising.

"Colleges and universities are using quite a bit more energy than they did a decade ago," says Mike MacDonald, higher-education sector manager of the US Department of Energy's Rebuild America program in Oak Ridge, Tenn. "There are exceptions, and some schools are doing well. But, on average, it's worse than the private sector."

The 1990s saw notable campus energy projects, from retrofitting light bulbs to installing more-efficient fan motors and chillers - even geothermal systems that use the earth's natural temperature. "With the California problems, there is a heightened sense of the need for more energy-efficient operations," says Lander Medlin, executive vice president for the Association of Higher Education Facilities Officers.

But most of those gains have been offset by a building boom that has often not been so energy-efficient. And, while students have tuned in academically to environmental issues, a "more is better" ethic dominates when it comes to dorm-room appliances. Students pack their rooms with microwaves, computers, refrigerators, halogen lamps, hot plates, coffeemakers, TVs, stereos and other appliances.

In networked dorms, students leave their computers running around the clock so they can jump instantly onto the Internet. The same often holds true for school computer labs.

"We've gone many years without seeing a mindset in this country that was pro-conservation," says Walter Simpson, energy chief at the State University of New York at Buffalo. "These kids don't have any recollection of what it's like to sit in gas lines or turn thermostats down."

Indeed, though there are at least 1,100 environmental-studies programs nationwide, Noel Perrin, an adjunct professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., agrees it would be a mistake to judge higher education's commitment to energy efficiency from the college curriculum.

While students flock to ecology courses, there is little student involvement in energy saving on even the most energy-efficient campuses like the University of New Hampshire in Durham, or State University of New York at Buffalo.

"We tried dorm competitions to save energy, but they just fizzled after a while," says Adam Wilson, who graduated last year from UNH. …

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