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UWRF’s sustainability plans continue despite economic downturn

April 23, 2009

Green initiatives and sustainability plans are expected to remain in place at UW-River Falls, regardless of the economic downturn. The most important of these plans is the University’s mission to go “off the grid,” or produce all of its own energy and utilities, by 2012.

The St. Croix Institute for Sustainable Community Development, has led sustainability efforts on campus since its founding in 2007. Institute director Kelly Cain said there is hope that the Institute can still maintain adequate funding to go off-grid in the next two and a half years, and that three other universities with the same goal have also made progress: UW-Madison, UW-Oshkosh and UW-Stevens Point.

“I’m still optimistic that we can get there,” said Cain, who has been an environmental science professor at UWRF for 23 years. “All four colleges are making great efforts at sustainability.”

Sophomore and marketing communications major Megan McGivern said the 2012 deadline may have to be compromised in light of a more difficult economic situation.

“They should push it back. But I think we’re doing a good job in the meantime,” McGivern said. “We have lots of little ways of saving energy.”

Senior Jessica Klenz said the project could still succeed if the college made it a high priority.

“We could [make the deadline] if we wanted to,” said Klenz, who is double majoring in chemistry and math. “It just depends on how bad they want to do it.”

The economy is likely to have an impact on the Institute as well as the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Studies (CAFES) when UWRF introduces its next budget. But the hard times may also encourage people to conserve more, and help change how our culture views energy, ag engineering professor Dean Olson said.

“I saw a similar thing with recycling. When it first started, people were very resistant to it. Now, they can’t imagine not recycling.” Olson said.

However, the recession may also have negative effects on the local environment. Aside from limiting the amount of money the state can put into agriculture and alternative energy, it can also lead to bad habits on campus. For example, when students are moving out for the summer and have old appliances or furniture to get rid of, Waste Management services charge a fee to pick them up. Having less money available, some students simply abandon the appliances on local roadsides, Olson said.

Under former Chancellor Don Betz, UWRF was one of four UW System colleges to launch off-grid initiatives in 2006. At the time, Gov. Jim Doyle had issued a challenge to the System to achieve sustainability in the next six years.

Doyle allocated $30 million dollars to the colleges’ plans in 2008, with $20 million going to UW-Madison and the other campuses still competing for their share of the remaining $10 million. Cain expressed hope that long-term goals of environmental sustainability and cleaner energy would take precedent over current economic issues on local, state and national levels.

“My ultimate goal is to work myself out of a job,” Cain said. “If we don’t have an environment that can sustain us, profits are a useless pursuit.”

So far UWRF has opened the new environment-friendly University Center and participated fully in a renewable energy block program.

Some initiatives still in progress include bio-diesel fuel production, solar paneling, mapping for possible wind turbines in the community and using motion and daylight-sensors on some of the lights. Forty percent of the University’s electricity now comes from wind, hydroelectric power and gas digesters, rather than carbon-based sources like coal or natural gas.

River Falls is also the only city in the Upper Midwest to be on the EPA’s list of Green Power Communities, ranked 10th in the country and first in the state. Cities make this list by meeting a number of requirements, such as buying green power and investing in alternative energy.

Whether UWRF makes its original 2012 deadline or not, the bottom line is that it will go off-grid eventually, Director of Facilities Management Michael Stifter said.

“I think we all see the challenge in what lies ahead, but I don’t feel we’re scared or intimidated by it,” Stifter said. “We look forward to new campus leadership and one that will work with us to further define our next steps.”