Campus & Community

‘Green’ Initiative looks to save energy worldwide

6 min read

Harvard is quietly greening.

And though it’s spring, the greening in this case is not just getting the Yard ready for Commencement. It’s an effort to get Harvard to practice the environmental responsibility that so many on campus preach, and it’s headed by the Harvard Green Campus Initiative, a year-old program that aims to put a commitment to environmental preservation and sustainability to work right here.

“Right now, we’re not a green university, but we’re a lot closer than others,” said Initiative Director Leith Sharp. “There’s so much that’s happened so quickly, it’s obvious that there’s a sea change underway here.”

The Harvard Green Campus Initiative (HGCI) was created last year by the University Committee on the Environment, which in April was incorporated into the new University Center for the Environment. The Initiative is overseen by an advisory board co-chaired by John Spengler, the Akira Yamaguchi Professor of Environmental Health and Human Habitation at the School of Public Health, and Thomas Vautin, associate vice president for facilities and environmental services.

“This is about getting down to business and saying ‘what can we do so that Harvard will have a smaller impact on the environment?’” Vautin said. “It’s also about creating better skills, increased personal awareness, and helping make Harvard a positive example in the community.”

From their offices at 38 Oxford St., the Initiative’s two-person staff works to educate people across the University about global environmental problems and get them thinking what can be done to lessen the impact of Harvard’s far-flung activities, which consume $800 million in goods and services annually.

The Initiative’s work is done not in marches and rallies, but in one-on-one conversations, in small conference rooms where facilities managers exchange ideas, and in myriad other ways and places across the University.

As the world’s human population grows toward 7 billion, more people are advocating living “sustainably,” or reducing consumption of natural resources by conserving, reusing, recycling, and increasing efficiency.

In Harvard’s case, living sustainably means things like designing environmentally friendly features into new construction projects, replacing old energy-gobbling ventilation fans with more efficient units, and buying energy-efficient computers. It could also mean making buildings more energy efficient, perhaps incorporating alternative energy sources to power them. Transportation services could use energy efficient vehicles and encourage people to get out of their cars and onto trains and buses.

But Sharp said her role isn’t to tell people exactly what they should do to make their activities, programs and facilities more environmentally friendly. What she does is to make people aware that there is a problem, provide incentives, information, partnerships and support to get people moving, stand back and let them go.

“We’d lose credibility very quickly [if they tried to dictate changes] because we can’t know everything,” Sharp said. “We’d be likely to be undermining the cutting-edge research that is happening on our campus.”

Sharp said connecting ongoing research on campus to environmental improvements is a major goal of hers. If researchers would use the University as a kind of living laboratory for discoveries and advances, she said, Harvard would doubtless become greener much more quickly.

“We have the talent at Harvard University to face the enormity of the environmental challenge and to become an environmentally sustainable campus,” Sharp said. “This would require us to perceive the campus as a living laboratory for teaching and research activities. Almost every academic discipline could be applied somewhere in the campus.”

Sharp said she didn’t know what that environmentally friendly campus would look like, since the solutions would come from those at different schools, centers, and programs. She said one thing would change, however, and that’s the way people think about their surroundings.

“We’d see a shift in mindset. The idea that you can throw things away would end, because we’d realize there is no ‘away,’” Sharp said.

In just a year of operation, the initiative has already made significant progress. Sharp said they’ve worked with 80 students, 50 project managers and several faculty members. They’ve partnered with numerous university champions to establish 10 summer internships within different groups across campus. The internships will support a greenhouse gas inventory for the campus, environmental procurement practice in University Operations Services, energy conservation in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, high performance building design in Harvard Planning and Real Estate, organic food supply to Harvard Dining Services and the use of alternative-fuel vehicles, compliments of a grant from Ford Motor Co.

Another initiative that got off the ground on May 16 is a Best Practices Exchange. The exchanges bring together people from different Schools and programs to share ideas and discuss projects. The May 16 exchange, a lunchtime event, featured a presentation by Daniel Beaudoin, manager of operations, energy and utilities at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Beaudoin talked about several different changes underway at the School, from a decision not to light and ventilate offices 24 hours a day, which annually will save about $332,000 not to mention 24 billion BTUs of energy.

Other projects range from replacing conventional computers with more costly low-energy computers to construction of new facilities for the departments of Environmental Science and Engineering and Environmental Epidemiology in Landmark Center on Park Drive in Boston.

The interior walls are being made of 70 percent recycled material, energy-efficient lighting is being installed, and the heating and cooling system is being installed in the floor rather than the ceiling. Less energy is needed to blow the air from the floor and any irritants contained in the circulating air is blown away from workers, rather than directly down on top of them, as is the case with traditional ceiling ventilation systems.

Other features include motion detectors so the lights will shut down when no one is in the room. Though the construction is more expensive than traditional methods, officials hope the added efficiencies will pay off in lower energy bills.

“[The Best Practices Exchange] is one of the many things we’re trying to do to get people to buy into the initiative and feel engaged,” Sharp said. “It works magic to get people talking to one another.”