Create interdorm sustainability competition to involve students


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As the global demand for energy puts an ever increasing premium on traditional sources of energy, every major American institution is confronted with a simple choice: move toward sustainability, or risk being buried alongside their obsolescent energy models.

On Wednesday, a story in The Daily Iowan highlighted how several institutions in the area are seeing real savings from switching to more eco-friendly light bulbs. This example is a small microcosm of what businesses nationwide have started to realize — that saving the environment is better for business. It saves money, makes many processes run more efficiently, and builds profitable brand-image for the long-term.

The University of Iowa has realized this, and it continues to make efforts to lower its environmental impact — but there is still much more to be done. As an institution of higher learning, the UI must not only focus on its bottom line but develop a community informed of the many benefits of sustainable culture.

One sub-group of the said UI community has perhaps the most room to improve — students. Their education in the subject should start early in their college careers, which is why we propose an interdorm competition to cut down energy use, teaching incoming students about sustainability, and further developing UI's eco-innovative image.

The savings could conceivably be seen in lower dorm costs, providing students with real and immediate benefits to strive toward.

The battle over clean energy, as it is often narrated, feels more like fiction than reality. What many feel is that, on one side are corporate and manufacturing monoliths — headed by industrial-revolution holdovers residing in urban strongholds, casting shadows upon fractured mountains and toppled trees. Opposite these industrial giants are wide-eyed youths — wearing rose-colored glasses and too often enamored with the trees they so dearly love to observe in the forest.

This fairy-tale conflict — between good and evil, realists and romantics, the young and the old- however, is just that: a fairy tale. The real battle that is being waged right now is one for survival. And many businesses are learning that, in order to survive in the modern economy, sustainability must be integrated in as many core functions as possible.

For example, Wal-Mart — the quintessential "bad boy" of business ethics — lists three broad environmental goals on its website: to be supplied by 100 percent renewable energy, to create zero waste, and to offer products that sustain people and the environment. It has measurable checkpoints on the way to meet these goals — for example, it increased fleet efficiency by 38 percent between 2005 and 2008, and it plans to double it by 2015.

McDonald's 2009 sustainability report was 79 pages long. Its affiliates and suppliers are required to meet certain codes of conduct, including fair labor, good working conditions, and openness to inspection.

These institutions are not necessarily doing this out of the goodness of their corporate hearts — they're doing it to make money. Saving energy saves money, happy employees make better workers, and keeping suppliers to higher standards means there will be less public ill-will in the future (which hurts sales)

In light, many higher-education institutions have already started keeping operation costs low through sustainable-energy initiatives. And up to this point, the UI has proven to be a trailblazing institution, a fact illuminated in extraordinary detail by Donald Guckert, the UI associate vice president for Facilities Management.

"The University of Iowa's Energy Control Center is on the cutting edge," said Guckert. "It's the only one of its kind nationwide … It's a comprehensive system that tracks, in real time, all of the energy being used by every buildings hooked up to the system."

The center monitors more than 100,000 points of interest, and it has already proven valuable, having recently pinpointed a faulty pressure valve that was liable to cost the university $500,000 a year, Guckert said.

If we pull back further, we can see one of the UI's most impressive achievements. The university became 20 percent more efficient per-square foot in the past decade. In Guckert's estimation, that has saved $6 million and can be expected to save an additional $8 million to $9 million in the next decade.

According to UI's Office of Sustainability, those savings are then invested in more eco-efficient initiatives and technology, paving the way for massive future savings and a lower carbon-footprint.

By and large, extraordinary success has been achieved by taking advantage of low-hanging fruit. Going forward, this means that more ambitious and community-centric approaches will need implementing to sustain net-negative energy growth- i.e. increasing efficiency an additional 35 percent. Part of this will require at least some effort on the part of students.

In order to incentivize these students to eco-friendly action, reducing their carbon footprint must have immediate, transparent benefits. A competition (with a reward, of course) among the dormitories to reduce energy-use will teach new students the advantages of eco-efficiency as well as create communities focused on minimizing their environmental impact.

If the UI wishes to lead the pack in terms of sustainability, it must work to include all of its staff, students, and associates in its goal. The student-body best reflects an educational institution, and in terms of sustainability, ours leaves much to be desired.

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