The Office of Sustainability was first introduced to the University of Iowa in 2008, and over the last 8 years their impacts on campus and in the community can be seen in the bikes on the streets, the fuel-conscious cars driven by the university, and every time you step into the lights or heat of a University building. After two years of research and preparation, in 2010 the office of Sustainability in partnership with other state agencies and the EPA, issued a set of ambitious sustainability goals for 2020. With the future near in sight, Liz Christiansen, Director of the Office of Sustainability of the University of Iowa, was happy to share some insight on the hard work done so far to meet those 2020 goals, the challenges the department faces in the next 5 years, and not only the future of sustainability on campus, but the longevity that this organization is aiming for:
Fin & Feather: The Office of Sustainability was created in 2008 with a declaration by then-President Sally Mason to “make Sustainability a central priority of all aspects of our University enterprise” – what are some the milestones the office has reached since then?
Liz Christiansen: The first milestone that I can think of is the establishment of our 2020 targets, which took a lot of work and over a year to pull together and embed them onto campus and the community. We made them a ten year target, and that was a really good thing for us to do at the time, not setting the goal so far out, like 2015 or 2030, because that meant if we were serious about achieving those goals we had to make progress every single year, nobody could fall down on their job, nobody couldn’t be doing their work.
One of the next milestones would be incorporating students* into our office. That has been for me the best part of the job, to work with young people who are going on to make a better world. That also leads into the creation of the charter committee, and making the sustainability charter committee a part of the shared governance on campus. We have students, faculty and staff all coming together to make sustainability policy on our campus, which means we have every level represented, and their role is to advise the president. It’s a wonderful collaboration.
Yet another milestone, and there are a lot of them, would be the actual progress that we have made on our 2020 targets and achieving our midterm goals. We’ve made great progress in reducing our energy consumption and we’re below the energy amount we were using in 2010 despite all the growth that is going around on campus. We’ve made our midterm target for renewable energy, and the work that we are doing towards dedicated energy crops is just groundbreaking. It’s all been such a wonderful thing to achieve in five years and the next five years will be even more challenging.
*editor’s note: Past student who have worked for the Office of Sustainability include Chris Page, Truman Scholar recipient & current MPA candidate at Princeton University; and Eric Holthaus who just accepted a position as Sustainability Coordinator for Cedar Rapids.
F&F: The first goal in the 2020 vision includes achieving a net-negative energy consumption growth from 2010, what are some the things that are being done to achieve this lofty goal?
L.C.: A lot of improvements have been made at the power plant to make the plant operate more efficiently. A lot of things that are more visible to people on campus is relighting projects, renovating building systems, and some of those project have a payback of even less than a year. I would say if you have an energy conservation project with a payback of only a few years, and you don’t do it, you’re not managing your money wisely. On top of the financial aspect, a lot of improvements have happened that resulted in more comfortable buildings for occupants, and facilities is moving over towards a different way of managing those assets, to being less reactive and more proactive, and moving to a way of managing the buildings so that they never really fall out of optimal performance. Paying attention to what’s happening to those building assets, and never allowing them to get to a point of wasting energy and being poor performers is essential to meeting our 2020 goal of net-zero energy growth.
F&F: Speaking upon the second 2020 goal, greening the University’s energy portfolio to include 40% renewable energy, what is some of the progress being made to reach that quota?
L.C.: We have an existing power plant and we think that one of the most efficient ways to get to more renewable energy is to transition away from coal as a main solid fuel and look more towards biomass. The solution that we are working on is to work with our agricultural producers to grow perennial crops that we can use as a substitute for coal. We are looking at this issue of renewable energy through a sustainability lens, so we ask ourselves what’s the best thing to do, given our set of circumstances, which promotes environmental performance and supports Iowa.
“We are looking at this issue of renewable energy through a sustainability lens, so we ask ourselves what’s the best thing to do, given our set of circumstances, which promotes environmental performance and supports Iowa”
We will spend millions of dollar a year on coal and all that revenue goes out of state. We looked at this and asked ourselves if there was a way we could produce our fuel locally, put those dollars through the local economy, and at the same time, find additional environmental benefits besides the clear benefit of reducing our coal consumption. Iowa has an issue with water quality, and I think we should all be concerned with the quality of our soils, and maintaining their productivity – putting more perennial crops where they need to go in order to secure soil productivity -We can all benefit from that.
It hasn’t been an easy thing to tackle, and the folks in facilities an facilities and utilities management have worked very hard to get to this point, and what I can say is that we are all still learning on the go, we have to tackle issues every single day, but it’s looking to hold tremendous promise.
F&F: Now that we know what is happening today, what are some of the challenges or future milestones you expect from the Office of Sustainability over the next 5 years?
L.C.: We have a real challenge in maintaining the progress we have made in terms of energy conservation. We have some big buildings coming online and those buildings are complicated, and they are going to be using a lot of energy, so we have to work even harder and dig even deeper to continue our energy reduction. That being said there is a group of really smart people working there every single day and looking for every single opportunity to reduce energy and reduce energy used on our campus, so I’m optimistic in that respect.
I’m also optimistic about expanding our renewable energy portfolio, and as we get closer to 2020 I think we’ll see parity in terms of solar energy cost compared to coal, and we’ll see opportunities where we can employ solar even more. Waste diversion is also a challenge. Getting to that 60% will be a challenge and it may have us looking even harder at the organic matter that is making its way into our waste stream. Right now we divert most of our pre-consumer and post-consumer food waste, but there are still some organics leaking through the system and making their way to the landfill, so we’ll need to be dogged to find those leaks.
My real hope is that we can continue to broaden this culture of sustainability on campus. If you give students the opportunity to learn about the impacts of global climate disruption, and let them learn about the principles of sustainability and give them the opportunity to practice them, apply them, we can send forth this next generation of thinkers and doers, entrepreneurs, and problem solvers. It’s a remarkable system and I’m looking forward to seeing what the next 5 years have in store for us.