The Pursuit of Savings: A Profile of UA Sustainability Initiatives

Photo of batteries.
UAF Photo by Todd Paris.

by Rachel Voris

Sustainability has become a hot word in the past 10 years. Thanks to discourse on global warming and climate change, terms like sustainability and energy efficiency are being discussed around dinner tables and board rooms alike. With a rising cost of living, specifically in Alaska, people are increasingly investigating options to maintain a good quality of life and keep costs down.

Sustainability is centered on reducing carbon emissions, or an a more personal level, one’s carbon foot print, but it is also about reducing energy use and creating cost savings. Though personal actions are vitally important, institutions of higher education have a role to play in making sure their population is educated, that their operations are mindful of energy efficiency standards and that a culture of sustainable choices is cultivated.

The Role of Higher Education

Scientific evidence suggests that the world is rapidly exhausting key resources and putting future generations at risk of living in a significantly diminished world. The climate is making headlines and many months are going on record for being either the hottest or coldest in decades, according to Kevin Maier, assistant professor of English and chair of the faculty sustainability committee at UAS. “Climate change is a big driver in shifting the way educational institutions are becoming more environmentally aware and pursuing sustainable choices.”

According to Michele Hébert, director of the UAF Office of Sustainability, the University of Alaska and all other higher education institution should do more than make progress. Universities should be leaders within the sustainable movement in terms of renewable energy, carbon emissions and social programs.

“The students are our future. If we engage them they may be better leaders tomorrow. Teach them to be sustainable leaders and effect what is going on in the university. They will learn they can effect their environment and community and they are more confident in taking on those rules in the future,”  Hébert  said.  

University of Alaska campuses are making steady progress to ensure that graduates are citizens who will work towards long-term health and vitality for cultural, economic, environmental and social systems in our communities.

Two students sitting at a desk.
Wyatt Hurlbut, left, and Brett Parks, board members for UAF's Office of Sustainability, solicit input for the sustainable villageon the Fairbanks campus. UAF Photo by Todd Paris.

Events Across the System

Within the past year, UA campuses in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau all did their part to reduce the carbon footprint students may be leaving as a result of campus life and make sustainable living a priority.

One of the most effective programs completed in 2012 at UAF included the newly built sustainable housing village. The project continues to receive national and international attention. The idea of having sustainable housing residence on campus is cutting edge, but what made this project even more unique was the approach Cold Climate Housing and Research Center (CCHRC) and UAF took to completing the project, which included student input and collaboration from start to finish.  

Students have been involved through all stages from design to the move in. Through a design competition held on campus, students worked with architects to create the building. Students were hired to build the housing and students now occupy the residences. The approach provides automatic student buy in—no one has to be convinced to live within a sustainable lifestyle once in the housing since they have been involved in the project at every step and are deeply invested.

CCHRC uses the sustainable village as a research facility to look at what can be built in rural Alaska on poor soil including permafrost. The students are researchers for CCHRC and help test and report on how well the building techniques work.

Picture of ribbon cutting at sustainable village.
The Sustainable Village is UAF's newest residence hall facility, offering select students an opportunity to live in experimental housing units to help determine if constuction techniques and energy-saving technologies can be replicated on a larger scale to help Alaskans deal with high energy costs thoughout the state. UAF Photo by Todd Paris.

Some of the research from the sustainable village is already being incorporated into building techniques for rural Alaska. Two of the residences have a floating spray foam foundation likening them to houseboats floating over the permafrost and holding back their heat so that the ground stays frozen. If the techniques prove to work, those building techniques can be used in other areas with permafrost.

The UAF Office of Sustainability also has a regular, aggressive outreach program. Outreach efforts include a weekly radio show, a newsletter, advertisements in the Sun Star student paper and a weekly movie showing at the pub on campus. The different methods of outreach allow the Office of Sustainability to reach broad audiences and keep discourse about sustainability flowing on campus, according to Hébert.

Every semester the UAF Office of Sustainability offers a grant program for students, using funds from the green fee paid by students, which has generated many successful sustainability practices on campus so far including water bottle filling stations, the green bike program and solar panels on the Student Recreation Center. Goals for the future include increased recycling effort in the dorms, which hasn’t been a focal point so far.

UAA also runs a similar grant program through their Office of Sustainability. The UAA sustainability grant program is new this semester and with the help of a new ad campaign student grant proposals will be submitted through January, February and March. Proposal evaluations will be completed in the weeks after spring break. As of right now Paula Williams, UAA director of the Office of Sustainability says the possibilities are endless for student ideas. Ideas may include water filling stations and proposals to get rid of plastics and bottled waters on campus. In order to complete these various projects, the UAA Office of Sustainability pairs with many associated volunteer groups like a paper/energy group, transportation group, faculty group and the advisory board to successfully complete projects.

The offices of sustainability at UAA and UAF don’t have many staff members, in fact both staff about two people, but volunteers and interested student help complete major projects.

Some ongoing events that UAA continues every year include a ONEShirt Nation clothing drive where clothes are donated to Big Brothers Big Sisters. Events also included an echo-chic fashion show, where participants create clothing from repurposed or recycled clothing and materials.

Michelle, Erin and Johnnie stand ready for the judges’ decision at the UAA Eco Chic Fashion Show.
Students give surveys on America Recycles Day.
America Recycles Day – Saara, Salame and Claire (left to right) students in Honors 192 Limits to Growth class stand ready at the garbage pile to administer the survey to students.

One of the more memorable and impressionable events from 2012 included UAA participation in America Recycles Day. The UAA Office of Sustainability had the janitorial contractor bring all of the garbage collected in one evening into the Cuddy Quad, next to the main area where students dine. The trash was stacked and roped off. Two classes conducted student surveys, where students were asked to guess how much trash was generated by UAA in a year, how much recycling was done by campus in a year and other questions to see if students felt recycling was important — especially after seeing the garbage stack from a single day. Based on the averages, if UAA’s trash was collected every day for a year, it would fill a football field and be eight feet tall covering the entire field.

Other elements of the day, which actively reached over 300 students, included the recycle it right game, where students were handed items that have to be sorted into correct bins. The activity played an active roll in recycling education.

Students take the survey, learn why recycling aluminum is important or play the Recycle It Right game and grab some pizza.
Students take the survey, learn why recycling aluminum is important or play the Recycle It Right game and grab some pizza.
America Recycles Day (Nov 15, 2012) Austin explains to a student the path that bauxite ore takes to become a can and the amount of oil used to process the ore into a can.
America Recycles Day: Austin explains to a student the path that bauxite ore takes to become a can and the amount of oil used to process the ore into a can.

Students for the most part are already vested in the idea of sustainability and don’t require a lot of education or driving interest, according to Hébert. At UAF, many students come with a history and knowledge of sustainable living. Students voted in the sustainability fee, and in some ways, students are ahead of the curve in terms of green living initiatives.

That doesn’t mean that efforts shouldn’t be made to further increase efforts and educational outreaches, though. Even though students and faculty on the UAS campus already have interest in sustainability issues, the UAS faculty committee hosts seminars and conferences every year to continue the dialogue and knowledge further. Seminars have been held on culture, community, environment and energy issues focusing on the southeast and Alaska in general.

Forums also focus on campus oriented issues big and small, including UAS facilities turning down the campus heat by two degrees to save on energy cost and use and recycling programs happening at every campus.

In addition to conference and seminars, one of the most successful events at UAS is the Sustainability Green Mug Program, which first was held in 2011 and is now an annual sustainability event. For the program, advanced ceramics students produce 100 handcrafted mugs and sell them for $5 to $10 in the hopes of encouraging the UAS community to avoid single-use paper and plastic cups. Now in the third year, this has been a successful program, Mier said.

Lindsey Forrest, a recent graduate of UAS's BA in English program and long-time art student.  Lindsey spearheaded the first Green Cup Program in 2011, an annual sustainability event in which advanced ceramics students produce 100 beautiful mugs and sell them for  $5-10, in the hopes of encouraging the UAS community to avoid single-use paper and plastic cups.  Now in the third year, this has been a successful program.
Lindsey Forrest, a recent graduate of UAS's English program and long-time art student spearheaded the first Green Cup Program in 2011, an annual sustainability event in which advanced ceramics students produce 100 beautiful mugs and sell them for $5-10, in the hopes of encouraging the UAS community to avoid single-use paper and plastic cups. Now in the third year, this has been a successful program.
Student throws cans into recycling bin.
Brandon Hoover loads aluminum cans from the MBS residence hall complex into the campus recycle bins. UAF Photo by Todd Paris.

Sustainability Fees and Student Initiative

Sustainability efforts can be expensive to initiate and maintain. To deal with these costs, UAA and UAF look to the sustainability fee. Students in Fairbanks and Anchorage voted in the sustainability fee to fund student projects and research related items that fall within the sustainable definition: economically sound, environmental wise or socially just.

Hébert said one key funding concept is to look for projects that have a quick return on investment. One UAF student proposed a computer shut down program that turned off computers on the network at night when the system isn’t being used. Previously, there was never enough money to run a program like this. The student sustainability board awarded a grant for the software, which cost about $40,000, and that money was paid back in six months by energy savings.

“If you can find ways to identify those funds to improve the energy efficiency on campus, you can find cost savings,” Hébert said.

Not all sustainability efforts are about cost savings though. Programs like the UAF green bike program or the potential UAS bus fare program are established to reduce carbon emissions, which also save students tranportation costs.

UAS has been working with Capital Transit in Juneau to get bus passes for students for the past three years, but the budget climate and turnovers at Capital Transit has made it difficult, Mier said. “UAS is a commuter campus, but the committee is working to shake that identity and try to become a more residential campus,” he said.

The student government sustainability committee is working on the bus issue now. Both committees don’t have budgets or a funding source. The faculty committee is more ad-hoc in nature and serves to make recommendations and continue discourse on improving energy efforts on campus. As a smaller campus, UAS Chancellor Pugh does frequent the sustainability committee meetings to talk about these issues. Still, decisions are often made on the bottom line instead of looking at the long term, Maier said.

As far as a green fee for UAS, the one in the works is tied directly to bus passes, which would work more like a transportation fee. The faculty committee saw that it would get less traction on a green fee and more interest on bus passes. Maier said student interest in the fee is still unclear, but the interest seems promising as long as the fee is not too expensive. Since students vote in the fees and pay for the fees as part of tuition, student interest and support must be very strong before a fee is proposed.

“We would love to have something like this, but right now we are trying to piece together small projects without having that source of funding,” Maier said. “There have been a number of small, quiet successes.”

Sustainability and the Future

Every year, UA Anchorage campus pays $3 million for electricity and nearly $2 million for gas. Considering the enormity of these costs, campuses must constantly be thinking about the future and how to integrate sustainability to lower costs and preserve the environment.

“This is money that could easily be reduced, just by being more efficient and changing behaviors. At least 60 percent of this money could be saved and used towards programs just by making personal sustainable choices rather than paying to burn fossil fuels,” Williams said.

So much of sustainability efforts are really about being forward thinking and taking the future state into account with all decisions and actions made. Within that, the UA campuses have future-oriented mindsets and goals about where they hope to be in the next five years.

The goals don’t have to be complex to make a difference. A goal for Mier with his work at UAS is to keep the conversation about sustainability going. When new projects are completed, keep sustainability in mind.

“I hope that we can keep having conversations about sustainability in mind. Sometimes we are having an impact just by talking about how things are done and examining if we can do them differently. You don’t even need a budget to do that,” Meir said.

At UAF, Hébert said some long-term goals for the campus include having more renewable energy options on campus, reducing paper use and have zero waste, as well as growing the sustainable village. A goal for every campus would be to eliminate plastic bottles and replace that use with water bottle filling stations. “In Alaska there is no opportunity to recycle plastics in the state. If you are really looking at having zero waste, reducing plastics or getting them off campus would be significant,” Hébert said.

UAA is a commuter campus with about 1,000 students living on campus. A big goal for the campus is to reduce the use of single occupancy vehicles, Williams said. Currently, Alaska does not utilize state funding for mass transportation, which can make using it more difficult. 

UAA plans to collaborate more with UAF, especially with the new engineering buildings being built at both campuses. Williams hopes through joint effort at both campuses, both new buildings may be built to a high sustainability standard. Williams said this accomplishment would be, “a feather in the cap” for both UAA and UAF and would make her very proud personally.

Engineering major Michael Stanfill was on hand to offer free bike tune-ups during staff appreciation day on the Fairbanks campus. UAF Photo by Todd Paris.

Challenges Ahead for Higher Education

People still sometimes think that sustainability will cost more, which isn’t true in a long-term perspective, Hébert said. “If you take things and focus on them being sustainable, it will save you money in the long run, but it is a big challenge to have people shift their way of thinking. You have to pay today, but the savings will pay it back and more in time.”

In general, there can be a cultural tension when making moves towards the future and making true change. Mier said the tension is a ripe opportunity for the UA as a higher education system of learning, to show other entities in the state how to proceed in a sustainable way.

Even with the remarkable student initiative to put in place a green fee both at UAF, and UAA, all three regional campuses still struggle with funding, which is possibly the greatest challenge the campuses face.

Within all the challenges, Williams said it is important for people to understand the links from individual behaviors to the worldwide climate changes that happening.

“It is personal choices that are causing problems and connections should be made be between our behaviors and the problems that are caused as a result of these choices,” Williams said. Through outreach, education and example, UA campuses are helping their populations make better, more sustainable choices and reduce negative impacts on their health and budget. It is better for UA, better for students and better for Alaska.

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