Students engage community on sustainability

Alex Greenlee

Posted on March 13, 2013 in News
By Kirsten Sylvain

The Students for Environmental Awareness and Sustainability are eagerly awaiting the presentation of their long-planned event: CarbonFEST, a day of “edu-tainment”  aimed at engaging and informing students, faculty and the community on climate change, divestment and other environmental issues this Wednesday.

Starting a dialogue

Shaun Carland, junior math and computer science major and president of SEAS, has been dedicated to coordinating the event since the group was founded last December.
He said that he hopes the event will be a fun way to engage the university community on environmental topics.

“Our ultimate goal for this is to get people –– students — aware and open to talk about climate change,” he said. Discussion on climate change, according to Carland, is not where it needs to be. “The conversation isn’t open. It’s something that we try not to think about,” he said.

But he believes that students, faculty and administration at the university are capable of starting a more successful dialogue on these subjects.

“We as students have the energy and the power to make significant changes in the community,” he said. “[As a university] we have the power and the resources to make progressive change here.”

He also mentioned that divestment will be a major theme of the discussion at the event and that it is one of the central issues that SEAS hopes to promote and drive to success at USM. Carland was adamantly that divestment is more than a matter of finance. “It’s an opportunity for us to make a statement as a university that we are not going to fund something that is ultimately going to destroy our future,” he said. “The university’s mission statement is that they will provide responsible stewardship for human, natural and financial resources, and by investing in fossil fuels, it’s a direct violation of the what the university stands for.”

For Carland, these big environmental questions present the need for immediate action. According to him, their effects go beyond the boundaries of the treelines and have become the cause of social issues and injustices. “This issue is affecting our community directly, and it’s affecting Maine directly,” he said, but not all Mainers feel comfortable going up against such giant problems. “We have to speak up for everyone, not just ourselves.” The goal of CarbonFEST 2013, he said, is to empower the community to speak up.

USM and the one-man energy department

Will Dunlay is the director of energy and utilities in Facilities Management at USM, or as he put it, “I’m a one-man show––I’m the energy department.”
His job, a fairly new one created by Executive Director of Facilities Management Bob Bertram at the beginning of 2011, is to reduce USM’s carbon footprint. Currently, he has a long list of large and small projects on his plate that will both reduce USM’s energy consumption and increase its savings, a list that he states has been too long for him to complete on his own.

In the two years that Dunlay has been at USM, the changes that he has made across both campuses have resulted in savings of $250,000 for the university each year. However, he believes that with additional support and resources he may be able to bring that amount to as much as $1 million annually in savings. He refers to this project as the “one-third initiative” because he believes that in taking the steps to reduce energy usage across campus that the university’s carbon footprint and energy use could be reduced by a third in five years. That savings, he said, might even be worth more in a few years based upon current energy prices. The energy conservation just from something like turning the lights off when a room is unoccupied could result in huge savings.

“I think that the payback is enough that it’s realistic,” he said. And while he recognized many positive changes that USM has made regarding energy policies in the past, he also acknowledged that the current stance the university has taken on energy could still be improved.

According to Dunlay, reducing USM’s carbon footprint has not been a great priority in the past. “We’ve not been aggressive at all,” he said.

One of the major issues in the past has been disagreements over temperature settings. Dunlay reported that most campus spaces are occupied only a third of the time, and he admitted “night times, weekends, vacations –– we pretty much keep the heat on.” This is because historically there has been huge reluctance from administration to draw the line on this issue because professors and staff who work late or on weekends lodge complaints that their offices are too cold.

“You have to have leadership from the top that says sometimes people are going to be uncomfortable,” Dunlay said. “We’ve not had that leadership in the past.”
He explained that he plans to start turning the heat off after hours, on weekends and during vacations and that USM President Theodora Kalikow has given him the green light to do so.

When asked what could be done to further improve sustainability at the university, Dunlay answered that as he sees it, two factors may impede the one-third initiative. The first, he said, will be finding the money. The second, and maybe larger issue, according to Dunlay –– “I’m only one man, and I can’t do it alone.”

He hopes that USM might hire two additional staff to help with these projects and believes that the new positions would realistically pay themselves in the savings that would result from the projects.

Dunlay is still hopeful that USM will become more invested in reducing its carbon footprint. “I’m hoping that students get more active and noisy about it and administration, more supportive.”

As a closing remark, Dunlay spoke about the ambivalence currently gripping society on the issue of climate change. “I just listen to the scientists, and they tell me it’s a global emergency,” he said. “The possibility is that the same type of ambivalence might be in our administration.”

“We can always do more”

When asked about the general stance of the university on energy and the environment, Chief Financial Officer Dick Campbell answered: “Let’s start by acknowledging that [as a society and as a university] we can always do more.”

He was positive about many changes that have already been made on campus in the last few years like the conversion of the white houses on campus from oil to natural gas and the future replacement of a 45-year-old central-heat plant in Gorham that will save a “modest” $50,000 per year.

He also cited the decision to stop burning number 2 fuel oil in Portland and to switch the central heating plant from oil to natural gas in 2007. “It was a decision that was definitely grounded in the impact that it would have on our carbon footprint,” he said. The difficulty in making many decisions is that many factors come into play. “It’s not just the immediate impact; It’s thinking about things like ‘how is this going to affect the carbon footprint?’ and ‘half a dozen other things.’”

Campbell was unable to comment specifically on the one-third initiative and stated that he hopes to receive a proposal for it in the future.

President Kalikow was unavailable to comment on this issue.

CarbonFEST will be at the Woodbury Campus Center from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.