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University addresses energy concerns

Maureen Mullen | Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Several new initiatives addressing energy and sustainability are underway at Notre Dame, though some student environmentalists say this newfound activism follows years of indifference.

In January, Executive Vice President John Affleck-Graves created the Energy and Environmental Issues Committee.

The new committee is designed to boost conservation efforts on campus by working with students and staff on a variety of new environmental initiatives, including an awareness campaign and green building proposals.

Jim Lyphout, vice president of Business Operations and chair of the Energy and Environmental Issues Committee, said the University is committed to the environment and seeks to improve upon its energy use.

In the College Sustainability Report Card, an environmental study led by a Cambridge, Mass. institute that reviewed campus and endowment policies last semester at leading institutions, Notre Dame scored a D- overall for environmental practice. In the areas of climate change and energy and green building, Notre Dame received F letter grades.

According to University administrators, however, the Sustainability Report Card inaccurately assessed environmental practice at Notre Dame.

The D- grade resulted from a lack of public information about University environmental practices, Lyphout said. No one from the Endowments Institute ever spoke with any University representative, he said, and so the evaluation was done by appraising what information Notre Dame made publicly available on its Web site.

According to Lyphout, not all University environmental practice is publicly documented, leading to an uninformed evaluation.

Information on certain environmentally friendly activities at the Notre Dame power plant, for instance, was not available to the survey’s authors, said Paul Kempf, director of utilities for the University.

“It’s a major misconception that the University hasn’t done anything for the environment,” he said.

The Notre Dame power plant is a combined heat and power plant that uses steam to produce both heating and cooling products, as well as electricity. This type of power plant is twice as efficient as traditional power plants, making it both economically advantageous and environmentally conscious.

“We are getting twice the energy, thus creating half the emissions,” Kempf said.

Thomas Furlong, co-president of Students for Environmental Action, acknowledged the efficiency of the power plant.

But, he pointed out, “ours is still a coal-burning power plant.”

Furlong criticized the University for failing to utilize renewable energy sources.

“A lot of universities that have good grades on the Sustainability Survey buy energy from renewable sources,” he said. “We do not.”

About 60 percent of all electricity used on campus is generated by the University’s power plant. The remaining 40 percent is purchased from American Electric Power – which Furlong said has no renewable energy initiatives and is a leading emissions producer.

Kempf said the University is reviewing options for incorporating renewable energy.

Felipe Witchger, a campus environmental activist, is a member of the Energy and Environmental Issues Committee. He created his energy studies major by combining engineering classes with economic and political science classes.

Witchger said the Sustainability Survey may have overlooked certain environmental practices. He considered it, however, to be “a very accurate assessment of the University.”

“When it comes to conscious environmental decisions and awareness, there just haven’t been big efforts toward conservation,” Witchger said. “In that sense, the letter grade is justifiable.”

Last year, he pitched an energy proposal to the University last year but was turned down.

“From a student perspective, the University hasn’t in the past been eager to move on environmental proposals and has not been very easy to work with,” he said.

That seems to be changing, he said.

The Energy and Environmental Issues Committee is open to working with faculty and students on various initiatives, Witchger said. “Energy Week” will be a large-scale awareness campaign launched in early October by the Energy and Environmental Issues Committee, Students for Environmental Action, and the Energy Center.

New construction on campus is planned to be environmentally aware, Lyphout said. The new engineering building will carry an environmental certification, he said. The building will feature solar panels, a source of renewable energy.

Construction on the new Center for Social Concerns building is planned for winter break, and the University will also apply for certification for that structure.

“Until this past year or two Notre Dame wasn’t considering green building,” Witchger said. “These new structures show that the University is making a better commitment to the environment.”

The University has also encouraged energy efficiency by partnering with Transpo, which allows University students, faculty and staff members to ride the Transpo bus system through the South Bend area free of charge with a valid University ID. In 2006, Notre Dame faculty, staff, and students took 96,000 one-way Transpo trips, Lyphout said.

Environmental issues may gain a greater prominence on campus in coming years.

There is much more that Notre Dame can still do, Witchger said, to reduce energy use. Occupancy sensors that control lighting and heating based on human presence should be installed in many University buildings.

“The University is planning on doing it, which is good,” he said, “but it’s a technology that cuts down on energy use that has been available for years and we have yet to see it here.”

A new energy proposal, supported by Witchger, will be a topic of the next Student Senate meeting, he said.

Witchger said students can help reduce energy use by modifying their own lifestyles and using energy efficiently and by pushing for environmental initiatives.

“In the past, students haven’t really pushed for initiatives,” he said. “But there are many leaders on campus now … and the University will probably change because of it.”