University earns gold in sustainability assessment

By Ayrel Clark-Proffitt, Sustainability Office
Originally published in @theU

The University of Utah has spent more than a decade building a robust campus sustainability program. Those efforts are paying off: This month, the University of Utah earned a STARS Gold rating from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). STARS, the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System, measures and encourages sustainability in all aspects of higher education.

Only 143 institutions boast a STARS Gold rating or better. More than 900 participants in 40 countries use AASHE’s STARS for publicly reporting information related to a college or university’s sustainability performance. Participants report achievements in five overall areas:

  1. Academics
  2. Engagement
  3. Operations
  4. Planning and administration
  5. Innovation and leadership

When the Sustainability Office opened in fall 2007, it had just one full-time employee. In 2011, the office submitted its first-ever STARS report. The result was Bronze. A starting point, but certainly not a satisfactory ending point. A challenge. Over the past decade, the U leaned fully into that challenge, establishing partnerships with academic and operation departments across the main and health campuses, growing curricular programming and faculty mentorship, building interdisciplinary research through the Global Change & Sustainability Center, and finally hiring a full-time chief sustainability officer in February 2020.

These steps reflect an increasingly integrated approach to sustainability across the University of Utah, said Kerry Case, U chief sustainability officer.

“This achievement represents more than a decade of strategic and important work by dozens of people across the university,” Case said. “I thank those individuals and departments for their commitment, as well as the university administration for its ongoing leadership and support for sustainability efforts at the U.”

Building success over time

The university’s Gold status comes largely from increased efforts to expand sustainability curriculum and research. The Sustainability Office and its partners targeted these areas because what the university teaches and researches has “profound impacts” beyond the campus footprint, Case said.

“Through sustainability curriculum and research, the U as an institution helps address sustainability challenges at local and global scales,” Case said. “It is critical for our operations to be more efficient; however, that cannot be the only goal. It is essential that we generate new knowledge and provide our students with the tools they need to contribute to a more just and sustainable society.”

Thanks to efforts in sustainability education, students are more likely than ever to be involved in courses with sustainability themes and learning outcomes. The Sustainability Education Advisory Committee (SEAC), which formed in 2015 to provide expertise on sustainability education initiatives and advocate for sustainability literacy, helped create sustainability course designations and embed sustainability literacy into institutional learning outcomes. SEAC includes representation from multiple colleges, departments and professional schools at the University of Utah and works closely with the General Education Curriculum Council. Thanks to SEAC’s work, 78% of academic departments at the U include sustainability course offerings.

“With so many students seeking sustainability education, our work here is really based in ensuring student engagement and success. The actions of SEAC ensure that students understand the connections between social equity and ecological integrity and prepares our students to be successful in an increasingly complex world,” said Adrienne Cachelin, director of sustainability education.

The U also saw major gains in the number of departments engaged in sustainability-related research. Of the campus departments engaged in research, 65% are looking into sustainability concerns. When the U last reported this number in 2017, it was only 40%. Brenda Bowen, director of the Global Change & Sustainability Center (GCSC), the U’s hub for interdisciplinary sustainability research, credits improved processes for identifying faculty research in nine overlapping sustainability research themes.

“I think that our improvement in the STARS Research category is primarily a reflection of the GCSC creating a more robust system for data collection around sustainability research and scholarship on campus,” Bowen said. “We worked with partners in the Office for Global Engagement to create a new online searchable Sustainability Inventory that builds from Faculty Activity Reports, which all faculty are required to complete annually.”

The U’s total points in the STARS Operations category continue to rise with each submission. Operations includes buildings, emissions inventories, and energy and water use, among other key facets of university facility management and maintenance.

Total energy consumption and costs are the lowest level they’ve been since 2011, despite considerable growth in total building area. U Facilities Management placed a significant focus on efficiency projects, including upgrading lighting and HVAC systems, using analytics to identify failed equipment, employing controls optimization, and employing zonal scheduling, which allows for major mechanical equipment to continue serving critical needs of small zones—such as critical lab experiments or classrooms—while minimizing waste in other areas. In fiscal year 2019, these efforts contributed to an 18% reduction in energy consumption per unit of floor area compared to the 2010 baseline year. The reduction in energy consumption is a contributor to the overall decrease in greenhouse gas emissions.

“Energy gets a lot of attention because it accounts for the majority of the University’s carbon footprint and potential cost savings are high,” said Chris Benson, associate director of Sustainability & Energy, Facilities Management. “Efficiency projects often have a lot of bang for the buck. I’ve always found it exciting to find these hidden pots of energy efficiency gold where it’s possible to both save a lot of money and significantly reduce emissions.”

Benson added that operational cost savings create a new source of revenue that can be reinvested into new projects annually and help fund the university’s carbon neutrality effort.

Reduction in water use continues to be a highlight for the University of Utah in its STARS reports. The U reduced potable water use by nearly 30% per weighted campus user compared to 2010. Those savings represent the cumulative impact of water-saving efforts, which include installing high-efficiency toilets and sinks in renovations and new construction, as well as improving irrigation systems and repairing leaks, among other efforts. “Weighted campus user” is a measurement that includes students and employees who live on campus, as well as those who travel to campus for work or school.

Commitment to ongoing improvement

STARS is an important tool for universities to benchmark successes, but it also highlights opportunities for improvement. The University of Utah remains committed to sustainability leadership. Efforts continue to source electricity from renewable sources and increase building electrification. Sustainability will continue to partner with academic departments to grow curriculum and research, particularly around equity-focused climate resilience. The U can further develop sustainable investing and purchasing strategies, as well as enhance campus and public engagement. In short, the work continues, but it is nice to pause and acknowledge the progress along the way.

Read the full University of Utah STARS report online.

A bright idea?

This article, originally published in @theu on September 6, 2019, was written by Paul Gabrielsen,
science writer, University of Utah Communications.

For low-income families, paying the energy bill every month can be challenging, as energy bills can account for up to twice the percentage of income as for families with median income. Further, converting to an energy-efficient lifestyle can come with a steep up-front cost, adding another financial barrier to saving energy.

But a recent pilot study, a partnership between the University of Utah and Utah Clean Energy, showed how to break through these barriers to empower Salt Lake City residents with energy saving technologies.

Researchers report in the journal Sustainability that over an eight-month period an LED lightbulb exchange program in Salt Lake City’s west side exchanged 1,432 lightbulbs, reached 181 households and saved participating families a collective $18,219 per year in energy costs. It’s one of several initiatives to introduce efficient technologies in underserved Utah homes and include all income levels in community efforts to combat climate change.

“Through this project we believe that community members realized that efficiency is something that they can do. It’s something that has real benefits to them. And is has spurred interest in taking additional actions to cut energy waste,” says Kevin Emerson, director of the Energy Efficiency Program for Utah Clean Energy.

Why lighting?

The pilot study focused on LED lighting because of its accessibility. “Lighting was targeted because it was a simple action that can be taken,” says Daniel Mendoza, research assistant professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Utah. “It’s something that anybody can do because it’s such a simple act. It’s also something that’s accessible to both owners and renters.”

Using LED lightbulbs donated in part by Rocky Mountain Power, Utah Clean Energy set up 23 community events in two ZIP codes on Salt Lake City’s west side. At the events, members of the community exchanged up to 15 older lightbulbs for new 9-watt LED bulbs, and received information about additional low-cost energy-saving strategies. The researchers also sent participants a follow-up survey to see how many had reached out to other local energy-saving programs.

The lightbulbs, Emerson notes, emit a warm, yellow light at a color temperature of 2,700 Kelvin, which is natural-looking and is less harsh than bluer lights. “We wanted participants to have a positive experience with energy-saving LED lighting so they would think well of energy efficiency and be more open to take additional energy-saving actions,” he said.

Because the pilot program involved an exchange of lightbulbs rather than just a giveaway, the researchers were able to calculate how much energy participants would save with the new bulbs. Assuming each LED bulb would last for 14 years, the project staff found that the exchanged lightbulbs would save, collectively, the energy equivalent of 19 homes every year. The energy-efficient bulbs also save 134 tons of carbon dioxide emissions, along with other air pollutants. Participants shaved, on average, $100 a year off of their energy bill.

“It does make a quantifiable impact in terms of CO2reductions from avoided electricity consumption, as well as the nontrivial amount of money they can save in terms of an electricity bill,” Mendoza says.

Taking action

The environmental benefits of the LED lightbulbs are well-established. Beyond that, the researchers hoped to learn more about how to influence Utahns’ behavior to engage with energy-saving practices.

The team extrapolated their pilot program results, which reached less than 1% of households in the target ZIP codes, to ask what might happen if an expanded program was able to reach more homes, up to 7.5%. Expanding to that scale would cost more, around $34,500 in the first year. But between the electricity savings and the social cost of carbon (a measure of the economic impacts of carbon emissions) such a program could save a combined $110,000 in that same year.

“It’s really a test case that can then be expanded to help facilitate additional energy efficiency actions being taken that wouldn’t otherwise be taken,” Emerson says. “And we see it as part of a larger transition toward a carbon free energy system.”

“We’ll be able to tell people what we can potentially deliver with additional resources,” Mendoza adds.

The follow-up survey asked participants if they’d taken any action to engage with five different energy-saving local programs. Responses varied, but 51% of participants said they had ordered or planned to order a Wattsmart kit from Rocky Mountain Power, 30% had set or planned to set appointments to seal their homes’ air leaks and 75% said they were more aware of how saving energy reduces pollution.

The pilot program was an overall success, the researchers report, and taught lessons about how to introduce sustainable practices at the community level, as well as additional steps Utah Clean Energy can take to make the program even more accessible to the diverse communities of Salt Lake’s west side.

Find the full study here.

Emerson suggests two ways to support Utah Clean Energy programs:

  1. Donate to Utah Clean Energy to support the cost of implementing energy efficiency community programs.
  2. Visit and learn about what actions you can take, regardless of where you live.


Adopting Sustainable Practices in the Workplace

The choices we make in our work environment impact the natural environment. Departments and offices represent a large portion of energy and material use, and waste generation on campus. By making smarter choices, we can integrate sustainability principles into day-to-day activities on campus. Our Green Office program provides tools, support, and guidance to colleges and departments to help make your campus life more sustainable.

Start your certification process today by completing the “Office” section of the checklist. It’s easy and can be done in less than 1 hour.
First steps:

  • Identify your “Green Office Educator.” If you are filling out the checklist, that would be you.
  • Post your checklist in a visible place in your breakroom or your office community space to remind people that your office is committed to environmental sustainability and actively supporting larger campus initiatives.
  • Next, send an email to your department members letting them know that the department or college is working towards certification. Encourage them to learn more about campus sustainability initiatives and support the effort by doing any of the following:
    • Volunteering to help your team get certified!
    • Signing up for the Sustainability Office newsletter
    • Following the Sustainability Office blog
    • Following Sustainable U of U on social media (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter)

Make sure Green Office practices are part of the new hire orientation process. Explain what the program entails and let them know how they can help support the effort. It can be as simple as sharing the above information during your office tour, describing your team’s ecofriendly purchasing practices, sharing resources related to sustainable transportation options and acquainting them with the recycling program.
More resources and information can be found here.