Campus & Community

Q&A with Heather Henriksen

7 min read

What’s the mission of the Harvard Office for Sustainability?

Our mission is to lead the Harvard University community in achieving its sustainability goals. We are organized centrally as part of the Office of the President in order to provide (and receive) advice and support across each of the University’s Schools and departments. We create forums in order to facilitate the sharing of best practices and new technologies from internal and external sources. We also develop University-wide outreach and education campaigns, as well as programs and incentives for faculty, students, and staff.

Chiefly, we want to work with each of the Schools and departments in order to achieve the goals of reducing this community’s environmental impact. We believe that saving energy, water, and other resources is not only smart but is good for the economy, the environment, and is consistent with the Harvard tradition of demonstrating leadership on key societal issues. We will be working closely with the Schools and departments to help them meet their sustainability goals and promote their achievements.

The office is only a few months old. What’s your focus right now?

We’re focused on establishing the implementation framework for the greenhouse gas reduction commitment announced this summer. This is an opportunity to reduce our energy usage and have our buildings and their inhabitants perform more efficiently.

We have convened six working groups made up of representatives from each of the Schools and key administrative areas to help us tackle implementation issues. An executive committee made up of several deans, faculty, and senior administrators will be reviewing the recommendations of each working group over the next six months. Our overall goal is that, by the end of this academic year, all Schools and units have a clear understanding of the steps required to plan their energy and greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction strategies. Additionally, we are striving to create a coordinated plan to achieve that goal and develop processes to track and report our progress.

We would like to integrate energy conservation and efficiency into all University operations, and into people’s lives. This saves resources and money. Our office will play an advisory role, helping define operational and building guidelines and identifying best practices through the GHG working groups. We will also work to ensure frequent and consistent communication regarding the University’s accomplishments in this area and help foster behavior changes that lead to reduced energy consumption and minimized impact on the environment.

The Harvard Green Campus Initiative (HGCI) has been absorbed into the new Office for Sustainability. Does it still exist?

When the Harvard Green Campus Initiative was created eight years ago, it was funded in part by a grant from the President and Provost, and also offered a fee-for-service entrepreneurial model for serving schools at Harvard on a project-by-project basis. Under the guidance of co-chairs Jack Spengler [Akira Yamaguchi Professor of Environmental Health and Habitation at the Harvard School of Public Health] and Thomas Vautin [Harvard’s associate vice president for facilities and environmental services] the HGCI helped Harvard become a living laboratory for sustainability practices and an environmental leader.

Through the efforts of the HGCI and the schools, Harvard has instituted a number of programs and initiatives in partnership with the Schools and units, such as the Resource Efficiency (REP) program, The Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ (FAS) student peer-to-peer education program, renewable energy projects, University Operations Services’ shuttle bus conversion to biodiesel, the campus-wide green building guidelines, and continued implementation of environmental education programs. The Harvard Greenhouse Gas Task Force recommended changing the HGCI into a more formal Harvard Office for Sustainability to broaden and enhance the University’s engagement in sustainable campus operations.

What has changed?

The Office for Sustainability oversees sustainability efforts across the University, including the implementation of the greenhouse gas reduction goals. We’ll keep our flexible service-based programs on the fee-for-service front, but the core of what we are doing is to focus on University-wide sustainability efforts. We will accomplish this by promoting Harvard-wide occupant engagement, offering operational recommendations beyond our green building guidelines, facilitating best-practice exchange between the University’s Schools and units, and encouraging relevant behavior changes.

Will HGCI programs remain in place?

Our office will continue numerous programs and projects the HGCI has been working on for the past several years. These cover five main areas: green building services; community education and engagement; management of the Harvard Green Loan Fund; development and delivery of trainings; and best practices sharing.

What role will individuals have in your sustainability plans?

We want to take the resources and educational services we have and transfer them to people so they own these goals. Each person on campus can be a change agent — and it will take all of us doing our part to reach our goals. Sustainability, especially reducing our energy usage and waste, is something that galvanizes and unifies the Harvard community. We all want to reduce costs and waste. This makes economic sense and shows environmental leadership. Not only can our behavior changes help meet our campus-wide goals, everything we share about reducing energy consumption at Harvard can be used by people to reduce their own energy bills at home.

The HGCI published case studies of Harvard’s green buildings — the new and the refurbished. Will your office continue that?

There are four big energy conservation areas — energy supply, building design, building operations, and building occupant practices. There will be case studies on all four areas. Traditionally, we’ve done case studies on building design and how buildings are efficiently operated. If you can commission an existing building to operate as they were intended to operate, you can have incredible energy efficiency — often up to 15 percent or more. For example the undergraduate Resource Efficiency Program (REP) has achieved a 13.8 percent reduction in electricity use in dorms between 2002 and 2007. Publishing case studies and capturing the lessons learned from projects at Harvard are some of the best ways to make sure we see continuous improvement over time and this will continue to be a focus of our organization.

What about occupant behavior?

We have research on energy consumption at Harvard Houses when they do their Green Cup competitions. We know the energy reductions they are getting and we’re working with Harvard University Dining Services, which has a Green Skillet program. We know exactly what their reductions are in energy and natural gas — Leverett House achieved 20.63 percent reduction in electricity and 11.81 percent reduction in gas usage over a three-year baseline. We also know the impact of closing fume hoods in labs through the energy savings of the FAS Shut the Sash program and technology upgrades employed in the School of Public Health’s labs. For example, the Shut the Sash program saved the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology in FAS $160,000 and 283 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent of emissions over the course of a single year. We know that if everyone plugged everything into a power strip and turned it off every night it would make a huge difference. We can put the lights on sensors, we can put computers on power-saving defaults, and we can default our printers to double-sided copies. So sustainability is also about how people use the buildings they occupy. Case studies can help translate such best practices and their true impact.

Universities are taking a big hit economically, along with the world at large. How will that affect what your office does?

The current economic climate makes energy conservation even more important. Energy reductions will save money. One of our most inspiring messages is that there are things we can do in relatively short order to reduce energy, and that saves money.

Will Harvard’s sustainability programs have an impact beyond Cambridge?

Harvard is recognized as a leader in environmental sustainability. The University has worked in partnership with the cities of Boston (as a member of the city’s Green Building Task Force) and Cambridge (serving on Cambridge Climate Action Committee) for several years, and continues to do so. The best thing we can do is continue to lead, and demonstrate best practices in reducing energy consumption, water consumption, solid waste, and so on. By motivating behavioral change and honoring our sustainability principles, we can strengthen our role as a living laboratory for sustainability — a place of demonstration, research, and teaching.