Campus strives to achieve sustainability despite challenges
March 6, 2008
The University Center stands in the middle of UW-River Falls as a symbol of the school's commitment to sustainability. Now a crew of faculty and staff are working to get the rest of campus caught up, sometimes facing challenges along the way.
A workshop was organized by agricultural economics Professor David Trechter as part of the Deliberative Polling Initiative, a national effort to get students involved in the decision-making process related to a major public policy issue.
UWRF students involved in the program were asked to offer their input on how to reduce campus carbon emissions and energy use.
The six-hour Feb. 23 workshop involved a briefing by a panel of experts and a discussion between student participants about what changes to make and how to pay for them.
About 300 of the students who responded to the initial project survey said they planned on attending the workshop, but only a few dozen showed up.
"It was frankly a real bitter disappointment to me, the low turnout," Trechter said.
Honors student Mandy Liesch, a moderator at the event, said she thinks that the fact that the event began early on Saturday morning may have contributed to the poor turnout.
The problem may also seem too big for the average student to solve in the time they are in school, Liesch said.
"We stay here for four to six years, and then leave, so it is really hard to invest time and effort into something that we may never see," Liesch said.
Meanwhile, workers at the UWRF central heating plant have been running test burns of a plant-based alternative to coal. The disks, about the diameter of a cookie and double the height, are made of ground and compacted wood from recycled palettes.
This fuel has the advantage of being basically carbon-neutral and isn't drastically more expensive than coal, Michael Stifter, head of Facilities Management said.
The rough texture on the tops and bottoms of the disks, however, makes it difficult to feed them through the system without them grinding back into sawdust. The current system, using gravity to move fuel through, was designed for relatively smooth coal.
Costly equipment updates will likely be necessary if UWRF made a permanent switch to the fuel.
"That would be a dramatic step [toward lower carbon emissions]," Stifter said.
Along with facility updates, we also need to reform our day-to-day way of living if UWRF and River Falls are to achieve sustainability, Kelly Cain, environmental science professor and director of the St. Croix Institute for Sustainable Community Development, said.
A truly sustainable community employs wise use of resources to provide its members with all of life's basic necessities—food, water, energy, shelter and jobs—without requiring outside resources.
Our way of getting food especially violates the rules of sustainable living, Cain said.
Rather than invest in food production in the area, campus Dining Services and most individuals in the area buy processed food that has been shipped thousands of miles.
"We've relied on cheap oil to be able to eat in a way that is not sustainable," Cain said.
The rising price of oil paired with environmental trends makes sustainable food production a necessity, not a choice, Cain said.
"But then you run into the seasonal limitations," Cain said.
Months of cold and few hours of sunlight mean the construction of greenhouses would be an important part of any plans to restructure the local food system.
In the meantime, UWRF Dining Services, with food transported from around the country, "has been a perfect example of dependence," Cain said.
Individual actions, such as the decision to throw away a bottle instead of recycling it, make the situation worse.
Cain is working to determine UWRF's contribution to greenhouse gas levels and has offered suggestions for achieving campus sustainability at various events, including the Deliberative Polling Initiative workshop.
Students at the Feb. 28 workshop offered their own potential solutions ranging from the common sense—replacing and resealing windows to limit heat loss—to the imaginative-generating power from exercise bikes.
A recent energy audit directed by Cain determined that facility updates to reduce campus carbon emissions and dependence on outside energy sources as much as possible would require an investment of between $12.5 million and $26.4 million. If these improvements were made, UWRF would likely face a $400,000 to $900,000 increase in yearly operating costs.
Given the potential financial impact of achieving sustainability, the voices of as many students as possible need to be heard on the issue, Trechter said.
Freshman animal science major Sara Bizzotto said she wouldn't mind a slight raise in tuition if it would result in a more environmentally friendly campus.
"I'm going to be in lots of debt anyway," Bizzotto said.
Trechter plans to keep the Deliberative Polling Initiative survey online.