CUNY Grows Greener

The University is slashing its energy use, planning efficient new campus buildings and finding innovative solutions to the environmental crisis worldwide

With concerns deepening over climate change, shrinking natural resources and rising energy costs, CUNY is moving to slash its greenhouse gas emissions by a third through conservation, green construction and upgrading of heating and cooling plants. And in research laboratories, University scientists are seeking ways to help rescue the environment, including building better batteries for electric cars, purifying sewage sludge and turning algae into biofuel.
Chancellor Matthew Goldstein has named a Task Force on Sustainability* to drive this initiative. It dovetails with Mayor Michael Bloomberg's call for municipal and other institutions to cut their emissions by 30 percent in 10 years, a challenge which CUNY and eight other universities pledged to meet last June. "Universities are really the right group to lead the charge on climate change," Mayor Bloomberg said. "They are in the business of shaping the leaders of tomorrow, which means they have a huge stake in the future."

Buildings account for 80 percent of carbon emissions in New York City, including 18 percent from government and institutional buildings, according to the city's first carbon-emissions inventory. CUNY is the city's biggest collegiate player with 23 campuses, 280 buildings and some 27 million square feet of space.

"The University is poised to become a leader in sustainable operations for both the city and the state," said Executive Vice Chancellor Allan Dobrin, the University's chief operating officer, who noted that CUNY's energy costs per square foot have already decreased by 10 percent in the last decade. But more than the savings, moving toward a University that supports a sustainable environment "is the right thing to do."

CUNY has already started slashing consumption of oil, gas and electricity-goals key to the sustainability plan each campus is developing. The University is buying electricity greener, securing 41.4 million kilowatt hours-or 10 percent of its needs-from wind generation. That makes CUNY the nation's eighth greenest university purchaser of electricity, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Green Power Partnership. The University is gradually adding solar power. A science lab at Bronx Community College already runs off a photovoltaic roof. Keyspan will pay for a 100-kilowatt roof for a computer lab at LaGuardia Community College. And a 51-kilowatt array is planned for Kings-borough Community College.

"CUNY's commitment to sustainability is important," said Robert "Buz" Paaswell, a distinguished professor of civil engineering at City College's Grove School of Engineering and one of the three Task Force co-chairs. "The challenge is how do we green our buildings and operations-the energy, air and light we use-as we go through capital expansion over the next 20 years? We have to ensure that everything we do improves the environment."

CUNY's Center for Sustainable Energy conducted extensive research on local solar power and helped craft the city's winning application to the U.S. Department of Energy to become one of 13 federally designated Solar Cities. As such, the Center now offers hands-on help to businesses and landlords public and private that want to go solar, from helping them determine what systems are best for their properties to analyzing installers' bids. The Center also is helping to implement the city's plan to generate 8.1 megawatts of solar power by 2015. "There is no silver bullet technology to take us off the grid," said Tria Case, executive director of both the Center and the CUNY Task Force. "But there are opportunities for adopting renewable energy or energy that can reduce our carbon footprint and our peak-load requirements, and that's where the city's energy problem is."

The University has invested $110 million in the last decade in upgrading its physical plant, particularly energy-related components such as new heating and cooling systems at sites including Hunter, York and City Colleges. Vice Chancellor for Facilities Planning, Construction and Management Iris Weinshall, another Task Force co-chair, expects green design, while more costly to build, to yield $6 million to $8 million a year in recurring energy savings within seven to 10 years. The ambitious goal is to have as much as a quarter of CUNY's facilities portfolio, which includes many historic and landmark buildings, energy efficient by 2017. "We have quite a task ahead of us," she said.

She directed that all new buildings be certified under the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating SystemTM. LEED has four certification levels-certified, silver, gold and platinum-based on the number of points that the Building Council grants for sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality, and innovation in design.

The University seeks silver certification for its new buildings. Although the new Hearst Tower and 7 World Trade Center in Manhattan garnered gold certification, they differ significantly from academic and particularly science buildings. "Office towers recirculate their air, but in a science building you need to change air more frequently," Weinshall said. Laboratory fumes must be quickly evacuated, so science buildings need to heat or chill outside air, use it once and then expel it, thereby favoring health and safety over energy efficiency.

CUNY's first LEED-certified science building will be at Lehman College, with additional silver-certified science buildings on the drawing board for City College and a replacement for Roosevelt Hall at Brooklyn College. The University has also negotiated 400,000 square feet for classrooms, labs and faculty offices for New York City College of Technology, which a private developer will build in an energy-efficient, residential tower on the edge of the campus. The complex is being designed by Pritzker Prize-winning Italian architect Renzo Piano.

CUNY includes green elements wherever possible in every retrofit, redesign or renovation. For example, Weinshall added a landscaped plaza to the building now under construction at John Jay College. CUNY also is attacking problematic older buildings, starting with what she called "the poster child for energy inefficiency," the Borough of Manhattan Community College complex on Chambers Street. The New York Power Authority (NYPA) will pay to convert its heating system from erratic and costly steam heat. Replacing its four-block-long roof with one that's more energy efficient and perhaps equipped with photovoltaic panels could figure into the plan.

Another renovation, of Baruch College's 1929 Art Deco building at 17 Lexington Ave., could start as early as fall 2009, said Assistant Vice President for Campus Operations Jim Lloyd. Baruch is shooting for silver certification while preserving classic architectural features and installing skylights and atria to bring in natural light, he said.

Sometimes savings can be achieved just by turning off the lights-and computers. Deputy Chief Operating Officer Ron Spalter, another Task Force co-chair, noted that CUNY maintains 40,000 computers in classrooms, offices and laboratories. New software costing $600,000 automatically places idle computers into sleep mode, saving $18 per machine a year, or $720,000 in total, he said. "That's real money, that's productivity and that's sustainability."

Another novel approach is demanding that suppliers reduce packaging of goods. Needless packaging carries hidden costs, besides posing disposal problems for the city. Dining halls will reduce reliance on plastic utensils, Styrofoam cups and disposable trays, Spalter said.

Energy-saving innovation is also bubbling up from the colleges. For example, Queens College is pushing recycling, installed motion sensors on classroom and office lights, swapped incandescent for fluorescent bulbs, and upgraded motors for fans, pumps, compressors and generators to energy-efficient models. It also bought hybrid-electric and off-road electric vehicles for security patrols, maintenance and moving people around campus. And it works with NYPA to reduce energy consumption during peak summer hours.

"Perhaps through new courses, every student should understand that the global environment will have some impact on their lives," Paaswell said. That's happening across the system. New York City College of Technology developed a course called "Sustainability Through Architecture," which introduces sustainability fundamentals against the larger picture of climate change. City Tech and Bronx and LaGuardia Community Colleges offer training for solar equipment installers, and the classes are fully subscribed.

Paaswell added, "CUNY has a world-class faculty who are expanding the envelope of research on the environment and disseminating the products of their research." Paaswell himself oversees the federally funded Transportation Research Center and CUNY's Institute for Urban Systems (CIUS), where engineering and social science illuminate urban infrastructure. CIUS also sponsors the state-funded Building Performance Laboratory, which offers green operation and technology instruction to workers who run energy systems in commercial and residential buildings; building owners; property managers; major tenants, energy regulators and government representatives. Paaswell has studied ways to improve transit operations; freight movement; bus travel; truck routes and their impact on asthma, and pedestrian safety. Examining how students and staff get to campus-and getting them out of cars-is also on his agenda.

That's also a keen interest of Robert Bell, Economics Department chair at Brooklyn College. He suggests CUNY consider partnering with a vendor to install a system on its campuses akin to the new Velib system in Paris and Lyon, which provides easy and cheap bicycle rentals. "Students traditionally have ridden bicycles, so it's not a far-out idea, and it works spectacularly in Paris," he said.

Bell, whose new book, "The Green Bubble: Waste into Wealth: The New Energy Revolution," examines the coming "after-oil" scenario, believes, "We can fight and win this war [against climate change] with the weapons we have today. Insulation, double glazing, hybrid cars like the Prius, wind turbines and solar photovoltaics work now, but we better get on the stick. We can't wait for another new invention."


1st CUNY Renewable-Energy Grad Powers Up Solar Career

Clint Porter is the first CUNY undergraduate to earn a diploma in renewable energy.

Clint Porter was studying photography when he stumbled across a book about the coming hydrogen economy that changed his life. "I wanted to build things and create, which is why I liked art and photography. But then I thought about hydrogen, biofuels, solar and wind, and figured that since people will always be using electricity, I'd always have a job." He found that no CUNY program offered a course to a bachelor's degree. That led him to the CUNY Graduate Center's Baccalaureate Degree Program, which let him stitch together courses in physics, calculus, environmental policy and environmental chemistry from Baruch, City and Hunter Colleges. At the CUNY Institute for Urban Systems, he conducted an energy audit on the federal Million Solar Roofs program. He added three independent study courses and two internships, including one at the Solar Electric Power Association in Washington, D.C. Porter finished his solar-related coursework two years ago, disposed of lingering English and American literature courses via CLEP (College-Level Examination Program) exams after moving to San Francisco to work in the solar industry, and will receive his BA in Energy Resource Policy in Latin America in January—the first CUNY undergraduate to earn a diploma in renewable energy. He now handles sales, government affairs and marketing for Kaco Solar Inc. USA, part of an international company that manufactures photovoltaic inverters, which turn the direct current generated by solar cells into the alternating current needed for most power uses."This was an awesome way to study—to have the freedom to educate yourself when a program is not in place to give you what you need," he said. "I'm 27 and have more experience and knowledge of the industry than people twice my age, most of it because of the CUNY Baccalaureate Program."


Creating Power From Sludge

Professor Teresa J. Bandosz

Sewage and industrial sludge may seem toxic to you, but to City College Chemistry Professor Teresa J. Bandosz it's pure environmental gold. Using pyrolysis (heating at high temperatures in an inert atmosphere), she converts sludge into adsorbent materials that clean fuel gases of hydrogen sulfide, a first step leading to pure hydrogen, an environmentally friendly power source. Along the way, hazardous heavy metals get embedded in carbon, rendering them nontoxic. "Copper and dyes are adsorbed in significant quantities," she said. "We haven't started with mercury yet, but we expect a good adsorption capacity." CUNY holds a patent on some of her research.

Turning Algae Into Jet Fuel

Associate Professor Jurgen Polle

Half the nation's 2008 corn crop will be diverted to make ethanol, the U.S. Agriculture Department estimates. The resulting corn scarcity will drive up the cost of eggs, milk and steaks. Microscopic algae, like that found in ponds, could be better and cheaper, says Juergen Polle, an associate professor of biology at Brooklyn College. Per acre, microalgae "can produce much higher levels of biofuels than other plants" and unlike corn, they can grow in salty or brackish water, without pesticides. "Harvesting is the real problem, because you're dealing with microscopic organisms, rather than being able to send a tractor through a cornfield," said Polle, who is working, under an Air Force contract, to isolate new microalgae strains for making jet fuel.

Designing Better Batteries

Professor Steven Greenbaum

Hunter College Physics Professor Steven Greenbaum believes his research into improving batteries for NASA projects and implantable cardiac defibrillators will extend the range and life cycle of electric cars-when equally powerful but cheaper battery materials are identified. "When you're designing for aerospace and medical uses, you don't care about cost, because there's no Radio Shack on Mars and when you have a heart attack your defibrillator has to work," he said. "But you'll never sell an electric car if the battery pack costs $25,000." Greenbaum received a U.S. Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics, Science and Engineering Mentoring in 2002.