The $400 billion building energy conundrum: why occupants matter

The US spends $400 billion to power buildings each year, about 50% of the total energy use in the country.  Reducing energy waste in these buildings would save billions, reduce carbon dioxide emissions, create jobs, and reduce reliance on fossil fuel imports, not to mention increase resiliency for the economy and individual businesses by insulating them from energy price shocks such as the recent spike in natural gas prices.

The opportunity for campuses to model best practices is paramount to stimulating change from the bottom-up.  One way to reduce costs and energy use: better education of the occupants.

It turns out that people-powered energy efficiency can make quite an impact.   I was an undergraduate during the 1973 oil embargo.   We held competitions among dorms to reduce electrical use, and the campus dorms saved 26%.   Companies doing aggressive employee education programs have achieved 10 to 15% energy reductions, which at Unity College would equate to $20,000 to $30,000 per year.   Energy efficiency solutions already within our grasp can make a huge difference.

Remember, there are no net-zero energy buildings, by definition.   There are net-zero energy occupants of buildings!  People matter.

There is no silver bullet for energy costs or carbon dioxide reduction.  Instead campuses should be looking for ‘silver buckshot’ solutions.   Many little actions will result in big changes – and big savings.  The next step: these changes will require leadership from the top at campuses everywhere.


Its about time: more companies committing to 100% renewable power

In a press release this week, Amazon became the latest tech company to commit to 100% renewable power.  Apple, Facebook, Google, SalesForce, and Box have already stated that they intend to achieve a goal of procuring100 percent renewable energy.   Apple is the largest private owner of solar facilities in the US.

Its the wave of the future for economic, environmental, and marketing reasons.  Eventually this wave will result in fossil fuel investments becoming de-valued ‘stranded assets’, solving the perceived CO2 climate crisis.

While Google, Facebook, Box and Salesforce are predominately software companies, Amazon’s massive e-commerce operations make it a prime candidate for sustainability efforts.

As prices for solar, wind and other renewables continue to fall, large companies in industries like retail — such as IKEA and WalMart— have also announced major initiatives to add rooftop solar.  Projected ongoing increases in the price of electricity in 2014-15 add additional economic incentive to the mix.

If major companies with huge power needs can do it, the question is, when will the first college campus announce 100% renewable power generated on its own campus?

Worth hearing again, and again, and again….

Get it done.

Anyone want to go to Paris?

Students currently enrolled at Unity College are privileged

Sustainable You(nity)

by Gunnar Norback (Earth and Environmental Science major, Class of 2017)


In 2012, Unity College became the first institution of higher education in the nation with an investment portfolio completely divested from fossil fuels. America’s Environmental College led the charge for higher education to invest in the future of students, a future built around renewable energy sources. Now time arrived for for the Unity College campus to follow in the footstep of its endowment, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and implementing renewable energy.

A strategic plan adopted by the Unity College Board of Trustees in 2014 sets the institution on track to be a carbon dioxide neutral campus by 2020. This model supersedes the national plan proposed by the EPA to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the United States by only 30% by 2030. Unity College is again ready to set the standard and lead the charge for academia to make the right decision.

Photovoltaic arrays, commonly referred to as solar panels, are a cost effective and efficient manner of meeting the institutions energy needs. PV will be incorporated into new construction as well as retrofitted to meet the needs of existing facilities. The existing 35 kilowatt PV array affixed to Unity’s Quimby Library produces 42,000 kilowatt hours annually, providing the school with $5,880 of energy each year.

Large scale adoption of a photovoltaic array as the primary source for electricity for Unity College will produce more than the 1 million kilowatt hours used annually by the institution. PV panels will be installed on south facing roofs, ground mounted in unused fields as well as strategically placed near classroom facilities to allow ease of access for educational purposes.

Once the photovoltaic infrastructure is in place, oil furnaces can be decommissioned in existing structures to be replaced by pellet boilers and electric air-source heat pumps. Further progress and renovation in existing structures will be made according to the specifications and needs of each.

The mission of Unity College provides a liberal arts education through the framework of sustainability. The development of cutting edge energy solutions on campus will provide access to Unity College students for relevant experience in the field of sustainability science, which can be applied upon graduation.

Students currently enrolled at Unity College are privileged to be here now.  The time has come where change must be made, the institution has charted a course investing in the future of the world’s youth, each and every Unity College students holds a key role in this investment. Unity College students will capitalize on this opportunity to align their values as well as careers with mitigating the effects of the most pressing issue of today: climate change.

Acting locally; check your tire pressure to reduce climate change (and oh by the way, save money)

Did you know?

Your tire pressure drops about 1 PSI for every 10 degree drop in temperature.  That means that by winter, your tires could be underinflated by 6-8 PSI compared to this summer – which could be 25% underinflated.  Six PSI can reduce your gas mileage by as much as 3 mpg — or even more if you drive a car that gets high gas mileage.  85 percent of drivers surveyed do not check their tire pressure regularly according to the Rubber Manufacturers Association.

So, one cool morning this weekend, check and adjust your tire pressure before you drive your car(s).  Save money – AND reduce CO2 emissions!


So now what? An open letter to the environmental community after the midterm elections

To my environmentally minded friends:

Clearly we are in deep trouble and truly meaningful legislative progress in the near term is no longer a reasonable expectation. Expecting progress on climate change and sustainability from Congress is off the table, now and possibly for the extended future. Compromise and wonky engagement continue to fail. With Obama we elected Miles Davis, but we got Kenny G.

When I arrived at Unity College in July of 2011, I found an institution in financial trouble and inwardly focused. Cost cutting was the only financial strategy, and this is a formula for extinction. The College had experienced two years of significant declines in enrollment and went on to experience a third. Faculty and staff salaries were in the basement and the physical plant was far from adequate for an institution of higher learning.

We have turned the corner on all of these shortcomings and our enrollment is surging. Why? I believe that it is because we embraced extreme change and chose to speak with integrity, honesty, and courage. These fundamental spiritual principles, most importantly honesty, have carried us to a new future. Put simply, the College had everything to gain and little to lose by facing our situation honestly and acting decisively.

Standing on the ethical high ground has served us well. We have not sugar coated our message and we have not flinched in the face of withering criticism. We are not wonky. We speak with conviction and clarity, and we now stride the national stage. We are the first college in the nation to divest from fossil fuels and we are the first to adopt sustainability science as a framework for all of our academic programming. This is built on transdisciplinary programming, a powerful new pedagogy that is necessary to train the next generation of sustainability leaders.  Our national brand is growing and we are making our message felt by institutions and constituents far beyond Maine.

From this experience, I recommend ten things for the activist community:

(1) Base everything we do on the ethical imperative of sustainability. Occupy the ethical high ground.  Stop compromising and seeking the middle ground on the foundational issues related to sustainability. These are extreme times and we need strong, courageous, decisive action that will be viewed as extreme by those supporting the status quo. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, more important than establishing a sustainable future for our children. The status quo of business as usual is simply unacceptable. We have everything to gain, and little to lose.

(2) Go on the offensive and adopt a compelling and positive vision that extends well beyond five years and the election and funding cycle. Become strategic rather than disorganized and tactical. Stop seeing our mission as holding the line, or preventing more damage by the opposition. Instead, leapfrog the minor environmental arguments and aggressively propose explicit, major, positive change.  Give people a hopeful, positive vision.  Integrate environmental goals with economic populism that serves the working class and poor.  Do not waste your time with organizations that support the status quo. Any institutional strategic plan should lay the groundwork for radical change beyond its five year lifespan, and should not be viewed as an end in itself.  Demand change that will serve our children and our grandchildren. Policy and conservation initiatives must have 2100 as their target.

(3) Merge financially and politically with your allies and don’t sweat the small stuff. Adopt the 80% rule. If you agree with 80% of your allies’ message and mission, then ignore the remainder and join them. Progressives must stop the tyranny of democracy and agree to disagree while taking action. In Maine and in much of the environmental community there are far too many NGOs with overlapping missions and philanthropic needs. This is simply ridiculous. Executive directors need to share authority or step down.

(4) Understand and embrace cultural cognition. Get expert marketing and messaging management from professionals who passionately share our vision of the future. The messenger matters as much as the message.  If you haven’t noticed, the Republican party does this very well.

(5) Focus on adaptation as well as mitigation, and quit having the absurd academic argument about one diluting the other. We need both. Now. Proactive adaptation is far less expensive than reactive adaptation. Mitigation is usually less expensive than any form of adaptation.

(6) Become aggressive and direct about seeking funds from the 1%. Organize and seek them out, and do not compromise your message. Educate them. Become insistent and persistent about seeking resources from those with the means to truly make a difference. Most will reject us. All we need is a few with significant wealth who are willing to contribute to a sustainable future.

(7) Focus on sophisticated resource management rather than pure conservation and preservation. Preserving nature as it is, or was, is not a realistic goal. We should seek to manage ecosystems for form and function. Give up your sacred cows in the conservation movement. Shed a tear and move on.

(8) Take direction from those who can lead. Your voice is important and you can make it heard. Then step off your soapbox and become a worker among workers. We need your hands, as well as your passions.  None of us have the truth in a corner, but some are able to lead.  Follow them.

(9) Long term extreme change must include a new economy that is not diversified on fossil fuels and is not driven by a mandate for continuous growth. Many in the opposition will interpret this as an assault on the primacy of capitalism. They are correct. Unregulated and unrestrained capitalism is not consistent with the future of civilization. Have the courage to say so and demand a better way.

(10) Have faith and take care of yourself and those that you love. Whenever I am asked where one should go to escape climate change, I give the same answer that Bill McKibben does: Anyplace there is a strong community. Build strong communities.

Stephen Mulkey, president
Unity College


President’s message for the next issue of Unity College magazine

We are out of time. Our collective action or inaction within the next decade or so will determine the fate of civilization. Climate change presently driven by historic emissions from burning fossil fuels will affect everything about the lives of the current generation of students in college. It will determine what they eat, where they work, how they get to work, where they can live, the kinds of careers available, and most of all, their quality of life. Failure to significantly curtail emissions will result in an estimated 4-6˚C global average temperature rise by 2100 and unthinkable consequences for civilization. Because environmental change will be the dominant theme of the coming decades, I believe that this century will come to be known as the Environmental Century. This is a watershed moment for our species.

Despite the utter clarity and unassailable validity of this science, higher education has generally failed to provide students with the tools to address the environmental challenges of the Environmental Century. The vast majority of institutions in the U.S. continue to treat environmental studies and science as niche disciplines and regard sustainability as important only as it applies to operational efficiency. To be sure, institutions of higher learning should lead the way in energy efficiency and sustainable design, but this barely scratches the surface of this critically important area of learning and research. The purpose of higher education is not operational sustainability – it is teaching, learning, and research. It is in the classroom and in the field that sustainability needs to be universally developed. The U.S. National Academy of Science has identified the focus of this effort as Sustainability Science, and I believe that sustainability, like writing and basic communication, must be taught across the curriculum.

At Unity College we are passionately dedicated to the proposition that the status quo of higher education is unacceptable. Failure to integrate sustainability throughout higher learning is a breach of our social contract with our students. The ways that teaching, learning, and research are structured and delivered at most universities and colleges have not fundamentally changed in centuries. Such hierarchical delivery of knowledge from singular sources such as a professor does not move students to understanding and action. It does not empower them to seize the opportunities made available by universal access to information. Surely in the Information Age, we can and must find a better way.

The entire curriculum at Unity College is framed by Sustainability Science and emphasizes transdisciplinary integration of information from the social, natural, and physical sciences as necessary for crafting effective solutions. We build our effectiveness on a solid foundation of the humanities and liberal arts. This makes us unique in our approach to crafting solutions. A short walk around campus will convince you that the College is entering a new era of infrastructure development in which we will increasingly be able to offer excellence in instruction and facilities to help students meet these challenges.

Over the course of my career as an environmental scientist, I have sometimes found myself feeling hopeless in the face of the litany of environmental woes. My own antidote to hopelessness is action. At Unity College, we take action…..and we have hope.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 506 other followers

%d bloggers like this: