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Green UVM Gets Report Card

By Jeff Wakefield Article published December 4, 2002

Biodiesel Boys
Fueling change: Scott Gordon, Kirk Jones and John Orr (right) with Orr's bio-diesel Mercedes. (Photo: Bill DiLillo)

The living room of John Orr’s off-campus apartment is crowded with the apparatus of an environmentalist. A natural waste water treatment system called a living machine perks away quietly in one corner, its plumes of vegetation streaming into the middle of the room. A large solar panel rests against a wall.

But the junior civil engineering major’s pride and joy is parked outside on Handy Court — a navy blue, 1985 diesel Mercedes 300. It’s not that Orr covets power symbols from the greed-is-good decade; it’s the diesel engine he’s interested in.

With the help of Scott Gordon, an assistant professor of chemistry, Orr and several friends have been working all semester to launch a bio-diesel business that they hope will supply fuel for UVM’s fleet of bio-diesel buses and, eventually, the community at large.

Being green
Orr is one of a growing number of students, faculty and staff at UVM — and across the country — interested in turning colleges and universities into showcases of green technology. The National Wildlife Federation’s Campus Ecology Project, launched a decade ago, has attracted about 100 new members a year for the past few years. In a survey of 819 colleges and universities NWF conducted in 2001, 80 percent indicated that they have some greening initiatives underway, with half the projects having started in the last five years.

UVM is a leader in the national trend; several of its demonstration projects, including the bio-diesel buses and the solar array on the roof of the Cage Central Heating Plant, across from the bookstore, are featured prominently on the National Wildlife Federation Web site at NWF 1 and NWF 2.

Two new projects solidify the university’s position at the forefront of the campus green-up trend — a just completed inventory of UVM’s greenhouse gas emissions comparing emissions in 1990 and 2000 and a wide-ranging assessment, called “Tracking UVM,” of the university’s environmental impact across a spectrum of categories.

While demonstration projects like the bio-diesel car and buses are important undertakings — because they model what’s possible — it’s just as important to take on the tough assignment of measuring environmental impacts, according to Stephanie Kaza, associate professor of natural resources and co-chair of UVM’s Environmental Council. Only a few colleges and universities have had the gumption to put together comprehensive report cards like UVM’s, Kaza says.

“You have to do these kinds of baseline audits,” no matter what their public relations impact, she says, “to see what’s really happening. Then you can begin to actually transform the institution.”

Data driving change
The university’s grades are mixed, an outcome that was surprising in some ways but ultimately constructive, says Gioia Thompson, coordinator of the Environmental Council, who managed data collection for both reports and wrote “Tracking UVM.”

Thanks to efficient new technologies and cleaner sources of electricity, greenhouse gas emissions at UVM increased only 2 percent over the ‘90s, a relatively positive outcome compared with other institutions and communities. Burlington, for example, saw a more than 20 percent increase over the period.

But the “Tracking UVM” report showed UVM’s environmental footprint has grown heavier in a number of areas, including some where the university takes pride in its eco-friendly programs. Despite a model recycling program, for example, the university is producing more trash today than it did in 1996. And electricity use has grown significantly since 1990 — by 23 percent — in spite of an intensive efforts to install efficient technologies.

“The increase in electricity use was quite amazing to us,” Thompson says. “I’m not sure we could have done any better with our conservation and efficiency programs.”

What the assessment shows, she says, is that “the university is not an island. We operate within the culture and standard of living of the U.S. We’re part of a national trend in increased electricity use and trash generation.”

UVM fared better in other areas: water use decreased 15 percent; despite an increase in building space, radioactive waste decreased 81 percent; energy sources became cleaner; and storm water flows were decreased at least 40 percent by treatment ponds.

The real significance of the audits is in the data-driven direction they provide for the institution. In the bad old days, Thompson remembers a purchasing manager whose big idea for greening up UVM was to buy refillable highlighters. “Without data, you’re at risk of putting your energy in the wrong places,” she says.

The audit concludes with a series of several dozen recommendations for students, faculty and staff, from building “green residence halls” to formalizing UVM’s environmental commitment by “creating a campus-wide environmental policy and plan.”

According to research conducted by the Environmental Council, UVM students expect a green campus. Count John Orr among them. Orr transferred here from Carnegie Mellon University because of the UVM's reputation as an environmental leader. “There’s a momentum and a movement at UVM and in Vermont that wasn’t there in Pittsburgh,” he says. “I’m glad I’m here.”


Get Inventory and Tracking Information on Web

Click on Climate Change to view the greenhouse gas inventory. The inventory was partly funded with a grant from Clean Air, Cool Planet, a leading nonprofit organization dedicated to finding and promoting solutions to global warming.

"Tracking UVM" will be available online and in print in January. For details, contact Gioia Thompson at 656-3803 or gioia.thompson@uvm.edu. The report was funded with a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency and was developed in collaboration with three local organizations: the Burlington Legacy Project; the Green Mountain Institute for Environmental Democracy; and the Institute for Sustainable Communities.