Kent State strives to go green, but faces challenging decisions

Jackie Lloyd

As the grasp of winter sets in, spring seems painfully far away. There isn’t much left that isn’t dead and brown – or white with snow – by now, but at Kent State some things remain green.

More and more colleges and universities are feeling the push to reduce overall energy consumption by increasing efficiency, conserving, reusing and recycling. Kent State is no different.

Where We Are

For example, Kent State uses a technology called Combined Heat and Power to power the campus at a rate that is 30 percent more efficient.

“Most places run turbines for energy and let the excess heat filter up to the roof and blow away into the atmosphere,” associate director of energy Thomas Dunn said. “We take that waste heat and convert it to additional heat to power the campus.”

The university has also received numerous awards from the state of Ohio and from the Environmental Protection Agency. In March, Kent received the EPA’s Energy Star CHP award for leadership in energy use and management. The only other school in the nation to receive that award was Princeton University.

Dunn said Kent State is doing much more to achieve a green campus, including constructing all new buildings at Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design silver standards. Developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, LEED is a rating system that sets standards for environmentally sustainable construction.

In addition, many energy efficient features were put in new buildings on campus. For example, if no motion is detected, the lights in Franklin Hall will automatically turn off after 15 minutes. The downfall? If a teacher or a class is being too still, the lights can go off when the classroom is in use.

“We are testing new technology to fix that,” Dunn said. “Now there are monitors that can detect if people are in the room by the level of (carbon dioxide), so the lights won’t turn off on you anymore.”

Dunn said Campus Environment and Operations is also working with Undergraduate Student Senate to improve recycling on campus.

“Education on energy conservation is crucial,” Dunn said. “The recent student competition is important because we are creating a culture for conservation.”

Dunn was referring to the energy conservation competition held among residence halls in October and November of last year. The students from the winning dorms, Beall and McDowell halls, reduced their energy consumption by 20 percent, far more than what the contest developers had hoped for.

“Let’s just say we thought the meters were reading wrong,” said Jim Zentmeyer, associate director of Residence Services.

Zentmeyer said university officials analyzed all data three times before they realized students really had reduced their energy consumption that much.

“Students care. They just don’t always see what they can do individually to help. They think, ‘How will turning off my desk light reduce my tuition?'” Dunn said.

While Dunn said while energy conservation may or may not affect tuition in the future, it can’t hurt.

“As a general rule, for most environmentally friendly things there is a savings realized.”

Kent State’s yearly cost of energy is $12 million, so it all depends on just how much energy is conserved.

“I think it’s really cool that Kent is going green,” said freshman exploratory major Sara Stephens. “We’re catching on to what the nation is doing. It’s cool to go green now.”

Stephens said she and her roommate made minor adjustments around their residence hall while the contest was taking place. “We turned off the TV before we fell asleep – normally we’d sleep with it on. We did little things like turn off our lights when we left.”

Where We Could Be

The University of Maryland at College Park is a great example of the right way to be green. It was rated as one of the top 15 green colleges and universities by Grist, an online environmental magazine. Maryland is comparable to Kent State in many ways, including campus area, student body size and energy needs.

Every aspect of the university is geared toward sustainability and achieving a green campus. They have an Office of Sustainability with the sole purpose of organizing all the other offices and departments on campus in a collective effort to conserve resources and energy.

At Maryland, dining services microfilters its cooking oils so it can use them twice as long. Once the oils have been used to their limit, they are converted into biodiesel that is used to power the university buses.

Their parking services replaced some of the old parking lots with parking garages that take up less land and allow for more greenspace. Their residence services uses certified green cleaning products that contain no caustic chemicals and are completely biodegradable.

Like Kent State, Maryland also uses a CHP power plant to maximize energy efficiency and also follows LEED Silver standards for new buildings.

“The big push to go green came in the spring,” said Mark Stewart, researcher for Campus Sustainability at Maryland. “There was talk about it for five or six years, but it didn’t happen until the students got involved. We also hired a new vice president of administrative affairs who breathed life into the idea.”

Stewart said that students participated in a letter-writing campaign that asked the president of the university to take action. Specifically, students wanted him to sign the American College and Universities Presidents Climate Commitment, which states the university commits to eventually becoming climate neutral, or having zero effect on the atmosphere.

To date, 448 institutions of higher education across the country have signed the commitment.

Kent State is not one of them.

Why We Haven’t Signed

President Lester Lefton said Kent State is still “assessing” whether it wants to sign the commitment because doing so is more than just a signature.

“We have to decide: Do you offer more classes or become more green?” Lefton said.

Signing the commitment would cost the university millions of dollars because it commits the university to do certain things.

Despite this, Lefton said Kent State has not ruled out signing it yet. “We haven’t said no, but we haven’t said yes yet.”

In a recent article published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Deborah Swackhamer, interim director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, explained why some institutions aren’t rushing to sign the commitment.

The commitment, she said, also asks colleges to make climate neutrality part of the curriculum, which is not something the president can do.

“The president has absolutely no control over the curriculum,” which is set by faculty members, Swackhamer said. “So some of these things he would be promising to do, he can’t promise.”

In another recent article, Leith Sharp, director of Harvard University’s Green Campus Initiative, expressed her concerns about universities jumping, rather hastily, into the commitment.

Sharp worries that many presidents who sign the recent climate commitment don’t realize the scale of the undertaking. Part of her concern stems from an energy shortage, in the form of manpower devoted to the issue.

“It’s unbelievable how much work this is going to be, and people are utterly blind to that fact,” she said

Kent State has come a long way already, but what else can it do to become truly green?

“You must find the champions of your cause within your administration,” said Stewart, Maryland’s Campus Sustainability researcher.

“A college president has to be passionate about it too, or at the very least, recognize the financial benefits of it.”

Contact reporter Jackie Lloyd at [email protected]