University of Michigan places 'balanced' bets on sustainability

Energy efficiency evangelism and waste management efforts are hallmarks of its Planet Blue initiative, which combines action and education.
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor

There are 427 campus buildings associated with the University of Michigan, more than 40,000 students and almost the same number of staff and faculty. Add 80,000 computers, and you're talking about an organization that spends upwards of $110 million on energy costs alone. That's a massive footprint to manage, operations-wise and emissions-wise.

Enter Planet Blue, an innovative campus sustainability program that challenges both students and faculty to take a leading role in spearheading conservation efforts aimed at reducing the institution's greenhouse gas emissions, cutting its operations costs and helping spur local economic development to boot. So far, Planet Blue (which has been put into action across 67 buildings and spearheaded by green teams) has helped the university achieve the following on behalf of its overall sustainability initiatives:

  • Avoid $5.2 million annually in energy costs (at fiscal year 2010 rates)
  • Cut overall energy consumption by 14 percent, an amount that is roughly equivalent to the power needed to run 3,245 average U.S. households
  • Divert 18,742 metric tons per year in carbon dioxide emissions, the same as taking about 3,750 cars off the road
  • Achieve a recycling rate of about 30.9 percent (more on that in a moment)

Mind you, these are achievements made possible with only a fraction of the student and faculty population actually participating. Those who do show an interest in sustainable business management practices can team up with faculty mentors to get involved with Planet Blue projects.

Andy Berki, manager of the Office of Campus Sustainability for the University of Michigan, said balance and pragmatism guide decisions about what projects to take on as part of Planet Blue -- and what might be best left for the future. After all, this is a public university, fiscally responsible to Michigan taxpayers and residents.

"We are very careful about the choices we make," he said. "We don't make investments in things that are outlandish. Certain projects just aren't attractive economically."

So, while you may hear a lot about campuses that are investing in alternative energy technologies, the University of Michigan has focused its investments in this area on supporting approximately 2.5 megawatts of capacity in wind investments in the middle of the state. Solar doesn't make as much sense, geographically speaking, and the university isn't ready to invest directly in renewable energy technology, said Berki. By supporting Michigan wind projects, the university can get a foothold into alternative energy AND help out the local Michigan economy, he said.

What you WILL see the university focusing on are energy efficiency efforts that help tune various campus buildings to run optimally from an energy and climate standpoint AND encourage the occupants to follow those practices. "You can put in all sorts of energy savings devices, but if you don't teach the people in the building how to use it, then it defeats the purpose and then savings go out the window," Berki said. Consider that the population literally comes and goes each year, and you'll realize the enormity of this challenge -- and the need for ongoing education.

And then there's recycling at "The Big House." I didn't realize this, but the University of Michigan's football field can hold more fans (about 115,000 per game) than any other stadium in the United States. Period. That's a whole lot of stuff to cart away after every home game, so recycling and solid waste management at the university get a lot of attention. Consider these stats, which reflect the stuff collected from the stadium per season:

  • 10.5 tons of cardboard and paper
  • 19 tons of mixed containers

Of course, there are still 78 tons of stuff that CAN'T be recycled, which is something that Planet Blue teams are focusing on with each passing year.

Another innovative idea that other universities might want to emulate: Under Planet Blue, a program has been created to cover "move in and move out" days at the university. When students move their living space, there are often things left behind that could be reused, so annual drives have been created to collect clothing, furniture and other items that can be donated to local charities. In the last academic year, the university collected about 10 tons associated with this effort, Berki reports.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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