Little steps: Reducing our environmental footprint

The Centennial Solar Panel System, installed in 2011, was the project of students from Engineers for a Sustainable World (ESW) and the Northwestern Sustainability Fund (NSF). It generates about 20,000 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity per year.

by Catherine Zhang//MEDILL

On Northwestern University’s campus, efforts are underway to increase the university’s energy efficiency and overall environmental sustainability. The recent purchase of REC’s accounting for 50% of electricity usage on campus is just one example of sustainability practices.

The solar panels on top of Ford, the efforts of environmental student groups, and Study Abroad opportunities are all teaching Northwestern individuals how they can make a difference, with little steps. Whether it’s at the student, curriculum, or research level, the past decade has been evidence of a strong shift in Northwestern’s efforts to reduce its environmental footprint.

Understanding Northwestern’s commitment to sustainable energy

When it comes to energy conservation on campus, there’s no better place to look than Northwestern’s Office of Sustainability.

Recently, Northwestern announced that it had just purchased renewable energy certificates amounting to 50 percent of its yearly electricity usage. Now fifth in the Environmental Protection Agency’s College and University Green Power Challenge, Northwestern is demonstrating its commitment to sustainable energy use across campus.

The EPA’s Green Power Partnership includes more than 1,400 partners, including local and state governments, Fortune 500 companies, and universities like Northwestern, according to a 2013 report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

The office employs undergraduate work study students from student groups such as Engineers for a Sustainable World and Fossil Free NU and co-hosts the Green Cup Challenge every year with Students for Ecological and Environmental Development at Northwestern University. This year, the Office reported that Northwestern was able to save $5,000 from the residential halls as a result of smarter energy usage.

Northwestern strongly supports energy efficiency programs, says Rob Whittier, the Director of the Office of Sustainability.

“As a university, we have a need to be further on the forefront of that discussion,” he said. “It’s what we do in our own footprint, and it’s about what we do in our curriculum.”

Some programs, like the upgrade to LED lighting, have a very short payback period.

“It’s just a great investment for the university,” says Whittier. “There’s nowhere else you could take that money and actually get a better return on your investment than investing in more efficient lighting.”

Others, like the solar photovoltaic array on top of the Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center, are a 25 year investment. The Centennial Solar Panel System, installed in 2011, is the university’s first onsite renewable energy source.

“It is an important sort of learning and research opportunity because students can look at that solar array, and they can see the production from that solar array, on an hourly or daily or monthly basis,” says Whittier. “I think it’s good for Northwestern to sort of signify support for a certain industry: solar.”

Whittier says that the Office of Sustainability wants to make new buildings up to 40% more efficient than in the past.

“I think of the Office of Sustainability as providing direction, and facilitating the connections between the various departments.”

The new Kellogg building, undergoing construction right now, is being designed in consideration of energy efficiency details like what kind of glass panes, lighting and temperature control systems the infrastructure will have. One major shift is the geothermal system planned for the building, with wells going down into the ground as deep as 550 feet.

Northwestern’s renewable energy certificates generate and deliver wind energy to the power grid.

“The cost of wind energy has come down to the point where it’s basically on par with what we could buy from the grid,’’ says Whittier. “We try to do it specifically around the Midwest because that supports an industry that’s important.”

The Midwest is America’s best bet at exploiting wind resources, says a 2012 article from the Energy Policy Journal. The authors predict that most future wind projects will take place in the Midwest.

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