By Mike Cullity
On the northern outskirts of SNHU’s main campus, a grassy parcel of university-owned land stretches along the Merrimack River. Adjacent to the freight rail tracks that flank the river’s eastern bank, the 10-acre plot is key territory in SNHU’s mission to help save the planet.
Several feet beneath the undeveloped terrain, groundwater pulses through a shallow layer of porous gravel, an aquifer capable of producing hundreds of gallons a minute if tapped. With a year-round temperature of 45 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit, the groundwater is a natural source of geothermal heat that could be used to warm campus buildings on frigid winter days.
For the past few years, SNHU Sustainability Director Roy Morrison has led a team in formulating a plan to extract geothermal heat from the groundwater using renewable solar electricity. Installing arrays of photovoltaic panels on a portion of the field’s surface could generate some of the electricity for pumps that would reap heat for campus use in the winter, Morrison says.
Moreover, the pumps could work in reverse during the summer, cooling buildings by extracting heat and dissipating it into the earth, he adds. The solar arrays would also supply supplemental power to the university’s grid, potentially meeting as much as 10 percent to 20 percent of SNHU’s energy demand, Morrison says.
Energy analyst Pentti Aalto of Morrison’s team has determined that the groundwater’s heating potential is substantial. And by capitalizing on the science of evaporation and condensation, the extraction process produces three to five times more energy in the form of heat than is expended in electricity, Morrison says.
"We can have a really outstanding increase in total efficiency and reduction in our environmental impact," he says.
Now in a design and funding-procurement stage, the project is one of several initiatives SNHU has undertaken to reduce its carbon footprint and ensure sustainability for future generations. From institutional imperatives such as investing in renewable energy to student-driven efforts to curb consumption of bottled water, green practices have become integral to the university's mission.
"We'd like to be as responsible a citizen as possible – that is, to be more thoughtful about sustainability, energy use and conservation,” says SNHU President Paul LeBlanc. “And we’d like to model for our students innovations and ethical thinking about the environment. We want them to know what it means to live in a community that is committed to sustainability."
Although the university has long embraced recycling and other planet-friendly practices, the greening of SNHU accelerated greatly in 2007 when the institution entered into a renewable energy hedge agreement with PPM Energy, an Oregon company now known as Iberdrola Renewables. The agreement enables SNHU to stabilize its energy prices for 15 years and offset all of its carbon production from campus electricity and natural gas.
By offering guaranteed income in a volatile energy market, hedge contracts are critical to renewable producers’ growth.
"This sort of arrangement provides the renewable energy company, in this case Maple Ridge Wind Farm, with a very high degree of certainty in terms of its ability to invest in increased renewable energy capacity," says Dr. Paul Barresi, chair of SNHU's Department of Environment, Politics and Society. "So it’s a win-win for everybody."
As part of the agreement, SNHU also receives 17,500 Renewable Energy Certificates, which are regulatory assets that offset greenhouse gas emissions associated with fossil fuel use. Each REC represents 1,000 kilowatt-hours of renewable electricity
SNHU’s RECs offset 13,125 tons of carbon dioxide per year – the combined annual carbon output of more than 2,100 cars, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calculations. The certificates are sufficient to offset the estimated 11,400 tons of carbon dioxide the university emits annually – making SNHU a carbon-neutral campus – with the remaining credits earmarked for other carbon-offsetting projects.
While other universities have entered into REC-purchasing agreements to offset carbon output or hedge agreements to stabilize prices, SNHU’s combination of the two strategies is a leading-edge practice, says Blaine Collison, director of the EPA Green Power Partnership, which recognizes SNHU’s efforts in its annual Green Power Challenge – a ranking of university renewable energy purchasers by athletic conference.
Although universities’ ability to make long-term commitments to renewable energy make them important players in the sustainability movement, their position to influence future generations make them even more critical to addressing climate change.
"They have students who are going to be not only participating in green initiatives, but taking those lessons learned forward with them into the rest of their lives," Collison says. "As a set of stakeholders that can really help change the world, higher education is right there, squarely on the forefront of possibility and action."
Campus Improvements – A Practical Approach
Creating greener campus facilities and grounds is another important facet of SNHU’s sustainability mission. In 2009, SNHU opened two new buildings – the Academic Center and Dining Center – constructed to meet guidelines the U.S. Green Building Council established for its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification system.
LEED promotes sustainable building and development practices through ratings systems that reward projects for implementing strategies that ensure better environmental and health performance. The U.S. Green Building Council awards several categories of LEED certification to buildings that accumulate a minimum number of ratings points.
Despite following LEED guidelines, however, the university elected not to pursue LEED certification for the two buildings. “When you design a building, typically there is at some point a gap, those last points you would need to get certification,” LeBlanc explains. “What happens quite often then is institutions start chasing those points and doing things that may or may not make sense for the building or for where they are, but it gets them the certification.”
In the case of the Academic Center, SNHU could have helped close its points gap by adding a bike rack and changing rooms and showers, at a cost of $75,000, LeBlanc says. But because SNHU is not a campus within easy biking distance for many commuters, the university decided that the money would be better spent making its older buildings more energy efficient.
"A lot of campuses are having this debate,” LeBlanc says. “LEED certification is a great bragging point and it would be fun to have it. On the other hand, why not follow LEED’s guidelines and build in that manner, but if your buildings fall short, don’t squander the money on points. Spend it or invest it in other sustainable efforts that have greater impact."
Last year, SNHU eliminated the use of chemicals for landscaping and grounds maintenance in favor of organic materials, LeBlanc says. And the university recently embarked on a $2.3 million project to upgrade lighting and controls for heating, ventilation and air-conditioning units across campus while reducing water use. These efficiency measures will reduce the university’s carbon emissions by an estimated 15 percent, LeBlanc says. Slated to be completed later this year or in early 2012, the project will also yield an estimated 20 percent energy savings, Morrison adds.
As SNHU pursues large-scale green initiatives, students are doing their part to foster sustainable living. The Environmentally Sustainable Students club has spearheaded campaigns such as "One Earth, One Bottle," which aims to persuade students, faculty and staff to drink tap water instead of bottled water, and "One Earth, One Container," which prompted the conversion to reusable takeout food containers at campus dining facilities.
"I really think the most important part about [the club's efforts] is affecting
the mindset," says Nate Boesch '11, one of the club's founders. Boesch is now enrolled at the University of Michigan Law School, where he plans to concentrate on environmental law and policy.
Meanwhile, students and SNHU Center for Service & Community Involvement administrators collaborated to create a campus community garden; opened in May, the garden allows members of the SNHU community to grow their own vegetables. And faculty members are leading the integration of sustainability into SNHU’s curriculum.
This fall, the university is offering an environmental management major, an interdisciplinary course of study that grew out of a predecessor program focusing on environment, ethics and public policy.
"The idea is to provide students with the knowledge, skills and experiences they need to be able to manage the systems that exist at the human-nature interface, whether they are natural systems or social systems, because that's where environmental problems lie," says Dr. Paul Barresi, who chairs the program. "Most environmental programs don’t have that type of focus."
SNHU is also developing an environmental science major to train students to work in fields such as conservation, ecology and waste management. The university also plans to incorporate environmental ethics into its instruction across disciplines.
"Whether it’s business, education or liberal arts, there will be an environmental ethics module that all faculty can use in their courses," says Dr. Michele Goldsmith, SNHU's Papoutsy Distinguished Chair in Environmental Ethics and Social Responsibility, who is assembling the material.
Assessing Our Efforts
Already a participant in the American Colleges & University Presidents Climate Commitment, LeBlanc is considering participating in the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS), a self-reporting framework for colleges and universities to measure performance that the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education has developed.
"If I were to look at our efforts and be frank about them, I would say really good work across multiple fronts, but I wouldn’t say they were coherently planned," LeBlanc says. “We’re looking at STARS as way of taking our efforts to the next level in a more planned and purposeful way.
"We want to get the most comprehensive snapshot of, ‘Where are we doing a good job, and where do we still have work to do?'"