When Green isn’t Green

Kate Whitbeck, communications manager, Sustainability Office
Wes Mangum, communications specialist, Facilities

Our landscape has slowly been changing around us. Those who have been on campus for more than 10 years remember when much of it was a vast expanse of lush green turf. As awareness of water conservation became more prevalent, the University of Utah began slowly adapting the landscaping.

Since then, the university’s Landscape Maintenance team has primarily focused on turfgrass replacement, water-wise landscape design and modern irrigation systems. By using “Slow the Flow” guidelines designed by our state water conservation experts, following the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) LEED standards for planting and expanding the use of well water for irrigation, the team has created a dramatic transformation saving the university millions of gallons of water and hundreds of thousands of dollars every year. In 2018 alone, 3,093 centum cubic feet of water (CCF), which equals 2.3 million gallons, were conserved through the efforts of the landscaping team.

So, why do we still have so much turf on campus? Unfortunately, this isn’t a process that can happen overnight both due to the enormous scope of the project and budgetary constraints. The university covers over 1,500 acres and manages 1,000 acres while about 439 acres have been set aside to remain in their wild state under the Heritage Preserve Program. Each year, the landscaping team reduces the amount of turf on campus and replaces it with water-wise landscaping. Where that happens is often a result of where the opportunity presents itself. The ideal opportunity to remove turf is often when a new building is erected or a large-scale remodel is occurring.  In 2018, 12 acres of turf were removed.

While replacing turf with water-wise landscaping is immediately noticeable, a lot of water conservation related to landscaping happens behind the scenes. The irrigation team is completing a substantial upgrade to the central irrigation systems that involves installing equipment that improves the U’s ability to manage irrigation, fine-tune water delivery and report outcomes. This project will conserve roughly 117,000 CCF (87.5 million gallons) water per year and provide better data for researchers. Because of the vast amount of water conserved through this project the return on investment is under four years.  The project was jointly funded through the Sustainable Energy Fund ($150K) and Facilities’ Sustainability & Energy Program ($400K).

What is significant about this new system is that it allows each zone to be calibrated by the water delivery technology and associated flow rate, from the giant, high-flow spray nozzles used on big turf areas to slow drip used for xeriscape. Lisa McCarrel, the current landscape supervisor is responsible for overseeing the irrigation upgrade.

“The ability to monitor water used for irrigation purposes at the level that this equipment and program gives us is remarkable. It allows each irrigator or horticulturist access to the program to make changes based on root zones, soil type, slope and other landscape data while in the field,” said McCarrel. “The system provides reports indicating water flow issues, which are received each morning. It provides information that helps the technician determine which problem should be addressed first, based on water loss or possible plant material loss. The calculated water cost savings could reach $10 million in seven to 10 years. In addition to water savings, the reporting will result in a significant reduction in labor and maintenance costs.”

The irrigation overhaul and changes in planting practices are producing good results. When looking at the five-year average for total water usage (both irrigation and culinary) on campus, the numbers indicate that water efficiency has outpaced growth. Water use intensity (CCF/sq. ft) is continuing to trend down. This is a direct result of water-efficient appliances, well-managed central plants and growing utilization of well water (secondary water) for irrigation.

And yes, we have all walked by that rogue sprinkler that is going off in the hottest part of the day or leaking all over the sidewalk. Our landscaping teams get stretched thin at the height of the irrigation season, and they need our help to let them know when something is malfunctioning or broken. Any malfunctioning irrigation issues can be reported by tweeting @UofUFM or calling 801 581-7221.

As climate change alters our weather patterns and our summers become longer and hotter, we will all have to be ever more diligent about water conservation. We are grateful that the landscaping team is doing their part to adapt our landscape to the changing conditions providing a model for us all.

This article was featured in @theu July 26, 2019

New Directions for Environmental Justice

By Nicholas Apodaca, graduate assistant, Sustainability Office

Many of us who care about climate change and environmental justice take action in our daily lives to do our part: we recycle, use sustainable products, use public transportation or eat locally grown food. Yet often environmental problems play out at a larger scale, and while our personal actions can help in small ways, it is important to understand the forces at work in creating environmental hazards and injustice from the start. If we know where injustice begins, we can begin to make a change for the better.

Professor David Pellow of the University of California, Santa Barbara, is exploring new directions in environmental justice in his research. On April 16 from 4 – 5 p.m. in ASB 210, join him for his lecture, “Toward a Critical Environmental Justice: Exploring State Violence & the Settler Colonial Conflicts.”

Pellow began his research in Sociology and Environmental Justice in the 1990s when he completed his Ph.D. dissertation in Sociology,  “Black workers in green industries: the hidden infrastructure of environmental racism,” at Northwestern University. He has since taught at Colorado, UC San Diego, and Minnesota, before arriving at UC Santa Barbara in 2015. There he is the Dehlsen Professor of Environmental Studies and Director of the Global Environmental Justice Project.

In his lecture, Pellow will explore new directions in the theoretical side of environmental sociology.  He breaks it down into multiple approaches. First, he is attempting to further build on existing research that focuses on the intersection between environmental hazards and class, income, race, gender, citizenship and nationality. He sees these intersections as critical for developing nuanced solutions to the complex interactions that produce injustice. “[I am] trying to ask bigger questions about the role of government or the nation-state in producing and exacerbating environmental problems and environmental justice issues in the first place,” Pellow explains. The contradiction is one of “relying on some of the same institutions that are arguably creating the problem in the first place.”

Pellow is also concerned with questions of scale in environmental justice research. He sees environmental justice as an issue that affects us  individually as well as globally. “Environmental hazards regarding academic and policy analysis must be approached as multi-scalar,” argues Pellow. “What happens at the micro scale is almost always revealed to be linked the community or national scale.” As no environmental issues exist in a vacuum, local and regional issues are just as “global” in consequence as environmental injustice outside of the United States. Often, we can find problems in our own neighborhood. Pellow’s recent research on oil refineries located in residential areas of Richmond, California illustrates this well, showing how global economic dynamics can lead to visible environmental impacts on real people.

Lastly, Pellow will explore the ethics of environmental injustice research.”The kind of environmental research I’m doing seeks to question the expendability of ecosystems, of habitats, and of marginalized human populations,” Pellow says. Pellow believes that environmental sociology shouldn’t simply seek to expose injustice, but should fight these notions of expendability. “It’s really about declaring, loudly, the indispensability (of marginalized people). It’s about saying every voice counts. Otherwise, it’s not a democracy.”

Should you too believe that every voice counts in the fight against environmental injustice, and have an interest in the cutting edge of environmental sociology research, come to ASB 210 on April 16 at 4 PM for David Pellow’s GCSC Seminar Series lecture, “Toward a Critical Environmental Justice: Exploring State Violence & the Settler Colonial Conflicts.”

INVESTING IN A CLEAN ENERGY FUTURE

Originally post on @theU on April 1, 2019.

By Emerson Andrews, Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund program manager

Did you know that every semester U students are investing in a clean energy future? In the past 15 years, students have come together on two occasions to pass self-imposed fees to create a fund for renewable energy and energy efficiency projects on campus. Both of these initiatives defined a more concrete pathway toward carbon neutrality while providing a mechanism to achieve the dream of a renewably powered future.

The resulting Sustainable Energy Fund (SEF) is a revolving loan fund (RLF) dedicated to large-scale sustainability projects at the University of Utah. To date, the SEF has invested $235,000 in energy efficiency and renewable energy projects on campus.

Now faculty and staff have an opportunity to contribute to this same fund. Sustainable investment on campus doesn’t have to rely solely on student fees.  This April, in honor of Earth Month, we encourage our faculty and staff to join our students to take direct, tangible action to address climate change and realize our students’ vision of a clean energy future.

Due to the nature of the projects that are funded, the SEF reduces greenhouse gas emissions, water use, fuel use and waste. Because of these benefits, it helps the University meet its goals of carbon, waste and water neutrality.

Sustainability-oriented RLFs exist across campuses nationwide. These funds provide up-front capital to fund renewable energy and energy efficiency projects that result in cost savings. As the projects pay back the loan, the money coming in from these cost savings is used to fund other projects. Quite simply, revolving funds are renewable sources of money for renewable projects.

Creating an RLF addresses a major roadblock in campus sustainability: High initial costs make many sustainability measures difficult for colleges and universities to finance, despite the fact that these projects often have long-term cost savings. These funds capitalize on the long-term profitability of sustainability projects by covering these initial costs while securing the return they produce for future initiatives, making such projects much more feasible.

Additionally, RLFs internalize the benefits of cost savings and energy production. Because the university’s fund uses existing resources to pay for projects, rather than seeking external funding, it allows the university to capture the full financial benefits of renewable energy and efficiency projects.

Just in the past few years, our students’ efforts have resulted in the following:

  • Mounted solar arrays on the S.J. Quinney College of Law parking canopy, Kennecott Mechanical Engineering building and Taft Nicholson Center.
  • Replaced old heaters at Red Butte Garden greenhouses with new high-efficiency and low-polluting models.
  • Installed motion- and daylight-sensitive LED lighting in the Special Collections area of Marriott Library to reduce energy and preserve collections.

These projects now return more than $25,000 a year to the fund in energy savings, which accounts for almost 20 percent of funding available for new projects. Within a few years, the growing fund will outpace student fees and staff donations demonstrating the power of an RLF.

Despite all of these benefits, the majority of the SEF projects have been funded only through student fees. Of the 80 plus funds like this at campuses around the nation, the university’s is one of five that relies almost entirely on student funding.

Now, University of Utah’s faculty and staff have an opportunity to match the efforts of the students to build a sustainable campus.  A simple $20 per month donation (just $10 per paycheck for U employees) will offset a single person’s portion of all carbon emissions coming from campus operations. Our students have put their dollars to work for the greater good. Now it is your turn. Join us in making an investment in sustainability this year. With your help, we will continue to make the U a better place for all who live, work and play here.

Click here to learn more about the Sustainable Energy Fund and how you can make it grow.

HUMANS OF THE U: NAIMA DAHIR

Originally post on @theU on March 9, 2019.

“I grew up in a family that never discussed environmental issues or sustainability. That was not something known to us. My parents have been through a lot—war and things like that—so sustainability and environmental justice hasn’t been a focus. We weren’t privileged enough to know about those issues or to have the resources or knowledge to know how our actions related to climate change.

When I first started college and learned about environmental racism, such as the water crisis in Flint, MI., I was taken aback at how these environmental injustices are happening in communities of color that don’t have the resources to fight back against things that are affecting them. It became personal to me as a person of color, who comes from a community that has a large refugee community with a low socioeconomic status.

I’m a big believer that we need to make sure we take care of our environment and our world. The earth has resources that are finite and can’t sustain us the way we have been using them.

When I found out the U offered free bus and TRAX passes I was excited. I use TRAX to get to and from school every day. I also use the bus sometimes as well when I need to get to places outside of campus. It’s easier than driving and I’m able to do homework, read and get things done.

But more important, I am reducing my carbon footprint and that was important to me. It makes me feel empowered just to be able to do something as easy as taking TRAX to help the planet. It’s the little things we do in our communities that really add up at the end of the day.”

— Naima Dahir, junior, International Studies and Environmental & Sustainability Studies

RECYCLE RIGHT

Originally posted on @theU on March 25, 2019.

By Ayrel Clark-Proffitt, Sustainability Office

“You think you know…but you have no idea.”

Sure, this is the lead-in for a celebrity exposé series on MTV, but in reality, it’s probably the best line to describe the state of recycling. Recycling isn’t a particularly new concept, even in the United States—Depression-era families couldn’t afford to throw things away and wartime conservation pushed for reduce, reuse, recycle before it was a “thing.” But the system we know today came out of the 1970s, 80s and 90s.

Chances are, the majority of people who recycle have been doing it wrong for decades. Recycling bins have long been the receptacle of hope—“aspirational recyclers” toss everything in the bin because they want it to be recyclable. That’s not how it works. Now, with China and other countries banning the import of a number of waste materials, including post-consumer plastic and mixed paper, as well as reducing the contamination threshold for other materials, learning to recycle right is more important than ever.

In January, the Sustainability Office, in partnership with Athletics and Stadium & Arena Event Services, launched the “Recycle Right” campaign at the Huntsman Center. We installed recycling and trash bins that follow best practices in waste management and added eye-catching posters designed to remind people to think before they throw. Then, on March 2, we decided to test how well the bins were working as part of the Pac-12 Team Green push to promote sustainability in conference sports facilities. After the gymnastics meet (in which our Red Rocksachieved a season-best score and beat Michigan!), employees and students in Sustainability and Facilities opened up the bins.

LANDFILL: Drink cups, lids, straws, condiment packets, chip bags, popcorn containers, food containers, food wrap, hotdog wraps, plastic cutlery, Styrofoam, napkins, paper towels, excess food and liquids. RECYCLING: Soda and water bottles, aluminum cans, candy cardboard boxes, paper drink trays, souvenir cups, clean food containers. No food or liquid.

 

We found recyclables—cans, plastics, perfect “10” signs—but we also found a lot of contaminants, aka trash. Contamination has long been a concern in single-stream recycling, where all recyclable materials go in one bin. The U uses single-stream recycling in the Huntsman Center to make recycling easier for fans and to reduce bin space. For the recycling bins on March 2, half the material by weight, was in the wrong bin. (By volume, an alternate way to measure, 40 percent was trash.)

We know people want to do the right thing, so we’re here to help you do the right thing right. Here are the top five contaminants we saw in the Huntsman bins:

  1. “Paper” soft drink cups
    Just like “paper” coffee cups, soft drink cups from concessions should go in the trash. While the outside of the cup is paper, the inside is a thin layer of plastic, which is what makes it able to hold liquid. It’s next to impossible to split the materials, so multi-layered cups go to the landfill.
  2. Liquid
    No liquid should go on the recycling side. So, if you have a soda bottle that is half empty that you want to recycle, empty the liquid first and then place the plastic bottle in the recycling bin. Same goes for water.
  3. Food
    Food is particularly problematic when all recycling is placed together. Large amounts of recyclable paper ended up in the trash because of food, syrup from ice cream and liquids. How clean should a container be before it goes in the recycling bin? Its contents shouldn’t spread to other materials. Also, popcorn isn’t recyclable.
  4. Food containers
    Paper popcorn bins should go in the trash, because like the cups, they are lined with plastic. Additionally, the red-checkered boat and paper need to go to the trash can.
  5. Napkins
    Yes, they are paper, but they can’t be recycled. Napkins are often soiled with food or human by-products (eww), plus the paper is such low quality that it doesn’t get recycled even when unused.

By eliminating these items from recycling bins, we can significantly reduce contamination and improve our recycling totals. It takes a community, and luckily, we’ve got a good one.

BYOB: Bring Your Own Bottle

Recycling is good, but reducing our waste generation in the first place should be the priority. The three Rs—reduce, reuse, recycle—are actually a hierarchy, with recycle being the last option. Fans can reduce their waste by bringing their own water bottles. From the Stadium & Arena Event Services A-Z Fan Guide:

One factory-sealed bottle of water per person (1 liter or less), is permitted in the stadium and arena. Bottled water may not be frozen. In an effort to be sustainable, empty, clear, plastic water bottles will be permitted. Bottle-filling stations can be found throughout the concourses at Rice-Eccles and the Huntsman Center.

REAL FOOD, REAL PROGRESS

Orginially posted on @theU on March 8, 2019.

By Jess Kemper, sustainable food systems manager, Office of Sustainability

Did you know that making good choices about the food we eat not only improves our health, but can support better labor conditions, improve the environment and keep profits in our local economy? Unfortunately, making poor choices can have the opposite impact.

Research conducted by University of Utah students on Dining Services’ purchases shows the U is moving in a positive direction.

In 2015, U President David Pershing signed the Real Food Campus Commitment, making the U part of a national campaign for food justice and committing our Dining Services to buy at least 20 percent “real food” by the year 2020. Food is considered “real” if it falls under one of four categories: humane, ecologically sound, fair or community-based.

The Real Food Challenge is backed by a student group focused on where their food comes from. Every other year, these students perform an audit of Dining Services’ purchases to determine the percentage of real food purchased. Wrapping up the research for the 2017-18, students found that Dining Services purchased 14.6 percent real food which is up from 12.3 percent in 2015.

Successes were seen in real poultry products, a 62 percent rise from 4 percent in 2015 to 66 percent in 2018. This was a result of the shift to a local poultry supplier, Wasatch Meats. Real baked goods rose to 62 percent in 2018 from 56 percent in 2015 by shifting to Beni Bakery Distributors. Real beverage and grocery purchases also saw a 6 percent and 2 percent bump, respectively.

After the audit is finalized the students produce recommendations on all food product purchases. For example, they determined that by only shifting 64 percent of non-real dairy dollars to real dairy the total real food percentage would increase to 20 percent. This would allow the campus to reach its goal one year early. If they switched all tea, coffee and meat to real, the U could report 27 percent, well above the goal, of its food purchases as humane, ecologically sound, fair or community-based.

“University Dining Services is optimistic in meeting the goal by 2020,” said Jennifer Nielsen, sustainability and safety coordinator, Chartwells-University Dining Services. “We are thankful for university and student support as we aim for the 20 percent benchmark. Our goal is to support our hard-working staff and dedicated students by continuing to serve local and quality products expected at the U. We strive to strengthen our U community through robust partnerships, and growing and implementing sustainable ideas.”

To read more about the results of the audit, click here. The next audit will start Fall Semester of 2019. If you are interested in joining the Real Food Challenge student group or researching real food as a paid intern, please e-mail Jessica Kemper at jessica.kemper@utah.edu. And learn more about the short- and long-term objectives related to building sustainable food systems on campus here.

HEALTHIER CAMPUS INITIATIVE

Originally posted on @theU on March 8, 2019.

By Shawn Wood, communications specialist, University of Utah Communications

The University of Utah has adopted guidelines to promote better health on campus through nutrition, physical activity and programming over the next three years through the Healthier Campus Initiative sponsored by the Partnership for a Healthier America.

President Ruth V. Watkins signing the Healthier Campus Initiative.

L-R Jerry Basfor, Robin Marcus, President Watkins and Alexis Pearl Lee.

“I’m impressed with the work being done on campus,” said President Ruth V. Watkins, who signed the initiative on March 7, 2019. “I fully support doing whatever we can to encourage and educate our students, staff and faculty about the importance of engaging in healthy habits and the difference eating well, exercising regularly and taking care of their overall wellness will make throughout their lives.”

The Healthier Campus Initiative partners with 73 colleges and universities across the nation to advance healthy living. Each partner commits to meeting a majority of the guidelines developed by Partnership for a Healthier America in collaboration with some of the nation’s leading nutrition, physical activity and campus wellness experts.

By joining the initiative, the U has agreed to meet at least 23 separate guidelines in three categories: food and nutrition, physical activity and overall wellness programming.

A new campus wellness committee will guide the U’s work over the next three years. Members are charged with identifying and organizing campus activities that promote living well for students, staff, faculty and visitors. Supporting a One U approach, the broad-based committee will develop recommendations and direction of campus wellness initiatives and promote healthy living on campus and in the community.

The leaders on campus are Robin Marcus, chief wellness officer, U of U Health, and Jerry Basford, associate vice president, Student Affairs. They will steer the committee to support innovative projects led by students, staff and faculty across campus, ranging from sustainable gardens to food-focused courses and cooking workshops, to outdoor recreation trips and active transportation.

“We are thrilled to partner across our campus to continue our move toward the healthiest campus,” said Marcus. “The habits formed in college—including what they eat and how much physical activity they get—can last a lifetime.”

Committee members will include representatives from:

HUMANS OF THE U: DEBOLINA BANERJEE

Originally posted on @theU on March 1, 2019.

“Having lived in India, Hong Kong and now Utah, public transportation has always been a huge part of my life. I’ve seen the difference infrastructure makes from country to country and the impacts it has on people’s travel behaviors. Coming from a highly dense megalopolis where the sheer number of people heightens traffic congestion so much so, it’s almost a relief to access public transportation. Utah’s a welcome change with its TRAX lines, protected bike lanes and other numerous public and active transit systems.

Coming from India, I cannot help but compare the poor driving conditions coupled with high fuel prices and other affordability issues, forces people to take the public transit. While here in the U.S. improved roadways, affordable car loans and low fuel prices encourage higher vehicle ownership and driving behaviors.

The two main reasons to take public transport in India are extreme traffic congestion and a huge percentage of daily workers who cannot afford their own vehicles. Public transport is a necessity not a choice. This high demand coupled with the government’s inability to supply cheap public transit also highlights the reality, the public transportation fleet needs upgrading and is not always an enjoyable ride. Whereas, in Utah, the bus and train fleet are modernized which guarantees a comfortable ride.

Being a user of public transit all my life, I see the numerous potentials here in Utah. What’s lacking here is the ‘necessity’ factor. People feel more in control of their schedule with driving. Ways to make mass transit more convenient could be; increasing the frequency of bus and TRAX, expanded routes to cover more neighborhoods, installing all-weather bus stop shelters and better integrating active transportation facilities with existing public transit, like bike racks at TRAX stops and building ‘floating’ bus stops.

While not my field of study in City and Metropolitan Planning, I know my colleagues are working on long-lasting solutions. They are thinking of unique ways to make the system so convenient that people want to ride a bus or train.

I’ve never owned a car. And I don’t think I’ll need to while I’m part of the U community. Thanks in large part to the TRAX and UTA benefit, my daily commute is taken care of.”

—Debolina Banerjee, doctoral student, Department of City and Metropolitan Planning and research assistant, Center for Ecological Planning + Design, LEED AP

Banerjee is just one member of the U whose commuting behavior is complex. Transportation mode choices depend on multiple factors, including weather, time of day, cost, proximity and convenience. Many commute trips involve more than one mode of transportation. Source: U. Office of Sustainability

COMMIT TO BETTER AIR YEAR-ROUND

Originally posted on @theU on February 25, 2019.

By Ayrel Clark-Proffitt, Sustainability Office

It’s the final week of the Clear the Air Challenge. As we approach the end of the competition, the University of Utah is a contender to take the top spot. That means you should log your trips now so we can triumph over both Fidelity Investments and UTA. If you walked to get lunch, log that walking trip. If you drove to a movie with a friend, log your carpool activity. If you worked from home on a snow day or brought lunch, enter a skipped trip. You can log trips all the way back to Feb. 1.

But in all seriousness, with cleaner air, we all win. The efforts of participants in the Clear the Air Challenge contribute to better air for all. Transportation choices do matter, particularly when considering the type of pollutants that collect here in the Salt Lake Valley: wintertime fine particulate matter and summer ozone. Our cars contribute to both.

We need cleaner air all year—not just in the month of February. Consider making alternative transportation part of your everyday life. Here are some ideas for all transportation methods:

Use your commute to stay in shape

Your daily commute can improve your health. Getting exercise by biking or walking can help to increase blood flow, release endorphins and reduce overall stress. Even logging 30 minutes of walking a day can help to improve mental health and energy. Join the STRAVA University of Utah Commuters club and challenge others to the longest ride, the biggest climb and more.

Make use of your UCard transit pass

Our UCards can be used to ride UTA buses, TRAX and FrontRunner. This generous benefit, managed by our Commuter Services department, is an incredible deal. Consider this: A monthly UTA pass costs $83.75 and that doesn’t even include access to FrontRunner. Use our transit access to commute to campus, go out on the town, or ride to Salt Lake’s sports venues, many of which are located within about half a mile of a TRAX line.

Ride Campus Shuttles

Our university has approximately 30 shuttle buses, 15 of which run on natural gas. According to Commuter Services, the campus shuttles help reduce the number of single-occupant vehicles driving around campus. These shuttles service thousands of members of the U community every week, so join them for the ride.

Drive smarter

Using our own vehicles can be convenient and there are some parts of our metro area that are public transit deserts. However, even those that need access to their vehicles can reduce their contribution to air pollution. Drivers can carpool, combine trips to reduce miles traveled and avoid idling while waiting in parking lots or at stoplights. Those looking to purchase a new car can also look into electric vehicles as a way to cut emissions.

Throughout February, take action on air quality by tracking your commute behaviors with the Clear the Air Challenge, a statewide competition that aims to reduce emissions from vehicles by promoting alternative transit options. Join the U team at travelwisetracker.com/s/university-of-utah.

THE U’S IMPACT ON AIR QUALITY

Orginally posted on @theU on February 19, 2019.

By Myron Willson, Deputy Chief Sustainability Officer

The inversion season is upon us. This can be a time to point fingers at other polluters, but it should also be a time to recognize our own contributions to the murky haze and examine what steps we are taking to reduce emissions, including those emissions created by our actions at work and school.

So, what is our own university doing to reduce emissions? The university (health sciences and lower campus) is often likened to a small city with the total population of faculty, staff and students exceeding 60,000. This means that we have a fairly significant potential for creating emissions.

Fortunately, in addition to supporting faculty who are conducting research on various aspects of air quality and its impacts, the university is also proactively identifying areas for emissions reductions. In 2014, leadership authorized the first universitywide emissions review resulting in a report that provided recommendations for infrastructure and operational changes. Some areas identified:

  • Efficiency improvements and controls for large natural gas-powered boilers for building heat and hot water
  • Emergency diesel generator replacement
  • Phasing out dirty gas-powered landscaping equipment and replacing with electric options
  • Reducing and controlling chemicals and solvents used in laboratories, shops, etc.
  • Increasing sustainable commuting (including bicycles, public transit and car sharing)

As resources have allowed, many of these recommendations have already been implemented. Numerous changes have been driven by the dedicated staff in facilities’ Sustainability and Energy Management OfficePlanning Design and ConstructionCommuter Services, as well as the Occupational and Environmental Health and Safety Office.  At this point, nearly 50 percent of the recommendations have been or are being addressed.

  • Many equipment upgrades have been completed at the central heating plant and operation has been optimized for efficient fuel use.
  • The landscaping team is investing in the electrification of equipment and has implemented a moratorium on gas-fired equipment on yellow and red AQ days.
  • The “Better-Buildings Challenge” has been fully funded and will result in a 20 percent reduction of energy use per square foot by 2020.
  • Based on feedback from the Sustainability Office, the Clear the Air Challenge has shifted from July to February to include students among other campus commuters.
  • A full-time active transportation manager position has been established along with funding for infrastructure changes to support non-vehicular transport.

These actions are netting results. Even as the campus has grown (both in numbers of students and building square footage) total emissions have nearly leveled out or decreased. Close to 50 percent of our faculty, staff and students come to campus each day in something other than a single-occupant vehicle (making us very competitive with other Pac-12 institutions according to the latest reports).

Recent building projects on campus, such as Gardner Commons, have been designed to produce minimal emissions as the systems for heating and cooling are electric. Almost no on-site emissions are created. In addition, as the university continues to increase its purchase of renewable electricity (geothermal and solar), emissions due to the operations of buildings like Gardner Commons will be nearly zero.

Going forward, new federal and state requirements for business and institutions related to air quality are likely to become more restrictive. University leadership has asked staff to review the 2015 Air Quality Task Force Report, provide recommendations for further reductions and lead the way in reducing emissions. Stay tuned for an update.

These are all reasons for optimism. So, on days when our air isn’t fit to breathe and we make a conscious choice to reduce our own emissions, we can rest assured that the university is doing its part too.

Throughout February, take action on air quality by tracking your commute behaviors with the Clear the Air Challenge, a statewide competition that aims to reduce emissions from vehicles by promoting alternative transit options. Join the U team at travelwisetracker.com/s/university-of-utah.