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Environmental Group Features Colleges Going Green

  • Karen Schaefer

Colleges and universities across the U.S. are going green. The Sierra Club, the nation's oldest and largest environmental group, has been following the trend, and in the current issue of its magazine, Sierra, it lists the ten schools doing the most to conserve energy and implement environmentally-friendly practices. Topping the list is a private liberal arts school in a small town in rural Ohio. Karen Schaefer visited Oberlin College, where students are doing everything from buying local foods for college dining halls to staging competitions between dorms to reduce energy.

Amanda Medris, a junior at Ohio's Oberlin College, says students can get very competitive over energy. "You know, how much shower time can I have in one week and how can I beat your shower time?" She and fellow junior Lucas Brown live with six other students in a century-old house that's owned by the college.

Amanda is into creative writing and Lucas is studying economics. Both are interested in learning to live in a more environmentally-friendly way. Amanda says it starts with small changes, like using a shower timer to save water. Lucas says they've also installed a device that allows them to shut the water off in the middle of a shower when they don't need it running. "We were doing military showers where you lather up with the water off," he explains, "but the water would get really cold when you turned it off. And this keeps a very tiny flow going to keep the heat."

Lucas and Amanda have also installed a flow restrictor in the bathroom sink and are planning to put some bricks in the toilet tank to reduce the amount of water needed for flushing. Those low-tech approaches should reduce energy use in their old house.

Across campus is a newer building that was designed with energy efficiency in mind. In one corner of the lofty, sunlit atrium of the Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies, water plays over rocks collected from the local landscape. But what looks like a water sculpture is actually a solar monitor. Oberlin College Environmental Studies Chairman John Peterson says it's powered by a solar panel that tracks the sun from dawn to dusk and makes passersby aware of how much energy is available. "If there are clouds in the sky, each time a cloud goes by, you get this modulation in sound, where the water sort of moves down to a trickle and then comes up again. If you're here on a cloudy day the flow's much less and at night there's no flow."

Solar panels cover the roof of the Lewis Center and a newly-erected canopy over an adjacent parking lot. Peterson says they'll provide more energy than the building uses and feed the excess back into the state's energy grid. The building is heated with geothermal power and an on-site wastewater treatment system uses plants like orchids as filters.

Peterson says in addition to being eco-friendly, the building helps people become more aware of the environmental impact of their actions. Standing in front of a data-monitoring screen that shows how much energy the building is producing, how much it's using and where the energy is going, he compares it to the real-time fuel efficiency screen in a popular Toyota car. "A lot of people when they come here, they say, 'Oh, this is a little like that gauge on my Prius car that's telling me how many miles per gallon I'm getting' and that's exactly right," he says. "Anyone who's driven a Prius knows that you begin to change your driving habits. When you can instantly see how much fuel you're using, you sort of get into this game. When you begin to have this new feedback that we're trying to provide people with, you begin to behave differently."

Peterson and his students have expanded the real-time monitoring of energy use to 17 campus dormitories. Last year they sponsored a friendly competition to see which dorm could use the least power. Peterson says two dorms cut their energy use in half.

That enthusiasm doesn't surprise Jennifer Hattam, associate senior editor for Sierra Magazine. She says it's today's students who will have to deal with global challenges like oil depletion and climate change, so greening the nation's colleges and universities can really make a difference. "If you can get students, young people, thinking about these issues at a young age, then it's something they will take with them as they go into their workplaces, they can use some of these ideas that they've worked out in college in their jobs, in their own homes in the future."

This is the first time Sierra Magazine has done a green college survey, but Hattam says it won't be the last. Along with Oberlin College, larger schools like Harvard, Duke and Carnegie Mellon also made the top ten list.

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