Sustainability efforts touch nearly every part of campus, from classes and research to energy use and food service
By A.J. Moser
“Go Green” is more than just a Spartan sports cheer. It is and always has been one of Michigan State University’s guiding principles.
Originally rooted in agriculture, MSU—perhaps more than ever before—is dedicated to ensuring the health and sustainability of the planet and its people.
Sustainability is about choices made within specific environmental, economic, social and cultural contexts.
“Higher education institutions are intimately linked to societal growth and transformation. They can help create and instill both the basic and applied knowledge that provides opportunities for all peoples and nations to achieve a heightened state of social and economic well-being and sustainable prosperity,” MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon said.
Across MSU, sustainability is embedded in a full spectrum of classes, research, campus procedures and plans for the future.
Simon is confident that MSU researchers and students will be among those helping to drive crucial breakthroughs in such key areas as: clean energy, global commerce, human behavior, health, education, conservation of wildlife and wildlands, engineering, world food production and future technologies that today are simply unimaginable.
In an effort to ensure that sustainability is encouraged on a day-to-day basis, the MSU Office of Sustainability department was established in 1999. It is within the Infrastructure Planning and Facilities operations. Its mission: to actively coordinate such areas as energy conservation, waste reduction and campus preservation among staff, faculty, students and guests.
“Our emphasis is on weaving sustainability into the campus culture,” said Ann Erhardt, program director. “Our actions
can make a big impact and as individuals we all have a part to play in making this world a better place.”
Consider this. Every year 15,000 students plug computers and appliances galore into their residence hall rooms. Ten dining halls daily whip up thousands of meals—while striving to cut down on water, energy and food waste. During the week, more than 50,000 students fill climate-controlled classrooms, labs, fitness centers and libraries. Factor in millions of annual visitors.
MSU considers all of the consumptive activities of those mentioned above in its environmental stewardship plans. And every MSU entity on- and off-campus has a role to play.
Administrators say the payoffs are enormous.
Greenhouse gas emissions have been slashed by more than 25 percent since 2009. A whopping $1.7 million has been returned through recycling and surplus sales. Some 200 offices, kitchens, labs and other facilities have earned Spartan Green certifications for implementing sustainable processes.
“Our role is to get everyone on campus involved as social leaders,” Erhardt said. “We partner with other groups … so that everything that impacts the physical environment is more efficient.”
That’s just a hint of the good things going on here. On the following pages you’ll find stories on other ways MSU is spreading the green.
MSU Goes Coal Free
By Tom Oswald, MSU
Michigan State University is no longer burning coal in its on-campus power plant, a move that is significantly reducing emissions from the plant as well as advancing the university’s Energy Transition Plan.
MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon made the announcement during an April webcast, A Conversation with President Simon about MSU’s Energy Future.”
“This is a critical step toward our university reducing its environmental impact and furthering the goals of the campus Energy Transition Plan,” Simon said. “One of our greatest challenges is how to reliably meet the university’s growing energy needs. This will help us meet those needs in a more sustainable fashion.”
Since 2009-10, MSU has decreased greenhouse gas emissions by more than 25 percent. Completing the switch from coal to all natural gas will allow the university to surpass its 2015 greenhouse gas reduction target of 30 percent.
Using natural gas instead of coal to power the campus results in a reduction in CO2 emissions of about 32 percent.
One other way to look at it: The average tree absorbs a net of about 1,000 pounds of CO2 over its lifetime. MSU’s use of natural gas has a similar impact to greenhouse gas reduction to planting about a half million trees each year.
“This is a very special day,” Satish Udpa, MSU executive vice president for administrative services, said after a public forum. “Special because it symbolizes the progress we’ve made in the last few years on how we consume energy, how we produce energy, and how we look around the corner in planning for meeting our energy requirements.”
Adopted in 2012, MSU’s Energy Transition Plan provides a framework for university energy decisions as it continues to move forward in meeting its needs while keeping a close eye on costs and environmental impacts. The ultimate vision—through conservation, research and education— is to create an environment in which the university is powered by 100 percent renewable energy.
The university also is taking additional steps to use energy efficiency and new technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Here are some examples:
-Building inspections and energy audits are taking place in facilities across campus. A university commissioning team is working to improve energy efficiency by utilizing new conservation methods.
-The Spartan Treasure Hunt engages employees with their building systems to improve overallefficiency and environmental effectiveness. Through observation, measurement and inquiry, teams of building occupants and facilities experts produce a list of resource-saving opportunities that are then considered through the building commissioning process.
-The campus power plant is going beyond just using natural gas but reducing CO2 emissions further by installing more efficient equipment and optimizing the campus electrical and steam production process. Through a cooperative agreement, campus faculty and staff, together with private researchers, are demonstrating greenhouse gas capture technology using algae at the campus power plant.
MSU Puts Spartan Locomotive on the Block
Without coal shipments, there was nothing left to be hauled by MSU’s bright green Spartan locomotive. So in May the MSU Surplus Store put it up for sale.
The university paid $600,000 for the switch engine in 2009. Until mid-April it hauled coal at the T.B. Simon Power Plant.
Bidding ended June 30. Offers were being vetted and MSU hoped to finalize the sale right around press time. Proceeds go directly into MSU’s general fund.
Who knows? It could end up as someone’s favorite Spartan lawn ornament.
They’re just a few of the extracurricular activities open to students in MSU’s Residential Initiative on the Study of the Environment program (or RISE).
A “living-and-learning” program, RISE is open to undergraduate students who share a passion for environmental stewardship. They may be studying in any one of MSU’s seven participating colleges.
On average, 200 students annually participate in the program, begun in 1995. In addition to their regular academic studies, RISE students spend time together studying environmental issues from multiple perspectives to earn minors in environmental and sustainability studies.
They all live together in LEED-certified Bailey Hall, in the Brody neighborhood.
“At Bailey, they can get their hands dirty and do the sorts of things they care about, like composting, growing food organically and managing a colony of bees,” said Laurie Thorp, RISE program director.
It’s a natural fit for college students who wish to live lightly on the earth.
“Students know that large-scale changes are needed. (Fighting world) poverty, hunger and climate change is challenging and difficult,” said Heather Shea-Gasser, assistant program director.
RISE students also nurture more than just nature. “Students are in residence here and they have a very strong ethos of care—they care for each other and they care for the community,” Thorp said.
In addition, RISE participants can apply for MSU-funded environmental science grants. Some students choose to volunteer with environmental advocacy groups and in public schools. All have access to career mentors and green internships.
Thorp said RISE students blossom into critical thinkers, role models and socially responsible adults.
“We know our students want to be on the forefront of social change and policy reform,” she added.
Sustainability Too Big to Be Crammed Into Simple Story
“The questions we face—from what cars we drive to what energy heats our homes—have implications far beyond us,” Jianguo “Jack” Liu, said in the science journal Energy.
“Being able to identify the full impact of those decisions is critical to sustainability and that ability stretches across many scientific disciplines and various geographic regions across the world. The stakes are high and science needs to change to rise to that challenge,” Liu added.
Liu is director of MSU’s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability. He went on to suggest new, more holistic methods to understand the true impact of energy decisions across the globe.
His telecoupling framework is a way to keep track of the many moving parts of the energy trade. In Energy, scientists in the United States and China put real-life examples of energy issues to the test using both a traditional “energy trade framework” as well as the interdisciplinary telecoupling framework to examine impacts.
One example is solar panels—a fast-growing way to contribute to sustainability by replacing coal-powered electricity across the world. The application of the telecoupling framework reveals a less simple analysis by factoring in the complexities of China’s manufacturing boom of photovoltaic panels to sell to customers in the European Union.
What began as a clear win both for manufacturers and the environment collapsed under a series of complicated feedbacks—one of the telecoupling framework’s specialties to scrutinize.
For while solar panels shows success in reducing coal consumption, they also required manufacturers to use electricity to produce the panels, which caused greenhouse gases to be emitted and spurred manufacturers to seek cheap—and less environmentally friendly—fuel sources to maintain profits.
The European Union took exception to that, resulting ultimately in China being taxed on solar panels. China’s price advantage was lost, and the industry collapsed.
“Any activities are driven by energy,” wrote co-author Canbing Li from China’s Hunan University. Using “only…socioeconomic or environmental aspects (makes) it impossible to get deep insight into how an energy system works and the telecoupling framework provides a chance to mitigate the gap.”
The telecoupling framework, authors say, can (also) do a better job of understanding long-term reactions to events, presenting a new way to look at the world.
The National Natural Science Fund of China, Hunan Strategic Industries Scienti?c and Technological Projects, U.S. National Science Foundation and Michigan AgBioResearch supported the research.