MU joins partnership to fight climate change

Friday, November 14, 2008 | 2:03 p.m. CST
Photo courtesy of Andrew B. Church
Director of Campus Facilities Phil Shocklee stands between a heaping pile of mulch, behind, and an even larger mound of used automobile tire chips, front, both of which are now used to generate electricity instead of coal.

COLUMBIA — MU has joined the ranks of 12 universities working to fight climate change.

In partnership with the Rocky Mountain Institute and the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, MU and the other universities will work toward becoming carbon-neutral and set an example for other universities and cities.

Participating institutions

Two-year institutions: Harford Community College, Bel Air, Md.; Richland College, Dallas; Lakeshore Technical College, Cleveland, Wis.

Four-year liberal arts institutions: University of Minnesota at Morris, Morris, Minn.; Furman University, Greenville, S.C.; Unity College, Unity, Maine; Luther College, Decorah, Iowa

Research universities: Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colo.; University of Vermont, Burlington, Vt.; University of Missouri; Tufts University, Medford, Mass.; Yale University, New Haven, Conn.

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They were picked by the two nonprofit organizations because they are a diverse group by geography, type of institution, types of barriers and demographics.

The effort involves taking note of what is being done at each university to slow climate change and identifying barriers, as well as ideas to overcome them. A Web site will eventually be set up for other universities to use as a guide.

MU's proposal for the project "provides a snapshot of sustainability on campus and also where it could and should go from here," said Ben Datema, a student adviser for Sustain Mizzou who co-authored the proposal with Sustain Mizzou President Patrick Margherio and fellow member Jason Fox.

Sustain Mizzou is a student group on campus that works to minimize the university's long-term effects on the environment by conserving energy and using renewable resources.

"As a microcosm of larger human settlements, such as cities and counties, a college campus is an ideal place to model future community-wide solutions," said Michael Kinsley of the Built Environment Team at the Rocky Mountain Institute in a prepared statement. "Rather than reducing greenhouse gas emissions building by building, this project takes a broader look at the campus as a system that can mitigate climate change holistically."

Evaluating each university as a microcosm starts by looking at what is already being done.

"Over the past 20 years, we've done a lot of energy conservation," Margherio said. "Our power plant is incredibly efficient. They're not doing it in terms of climate change but in terms of cost-efficiency. By reducing consumption of energy, you save money, but it also results in climate change and reducing our impact on the environment."

Since 1990, MU has reduced its energy costs by $4 million a year through conservation technologies that have a payback of five years or less. Even though the campus has expanded geographically by 60 percent since 1990, energy use has been reduced by 19 percent per square foot campus-wide, according to the Campus Facilities Web site.

"I think that we offer a lot," Datema said. "In the Midwest, we have our own energy management department. We have a lot of resources in the region. We have a very open and willing administration. There is cooperation all around and a lot of ways we can improve our system by doing easy things. I think we are fertile ground for climate change initiatives right now."

For one, the MU Power Plant uses a process called combined heat and power to produce energy at nearly twice the efficiency of a conventional power plant. This process uses the electricity produced and traps the steam created at the plant to help light, heat and cool campus buildings.

In addition, the plant replaces 20 percent of traditional coal fuel with shredded tires, called tire derived fuel, because it burns cleaner and reduces emissions. It has also been shown to reduce sulfur emissions and the amount of ash generated, and it saves MU up to $300,000 annually.

The campus power plant is also developing and using renewable biomass fuels like wood chips, grasses and corn cobs. Using wood chips reduces emissions of sulfur dioxide and ash, lowers the campus fuel bill by about $50,000 a year and reduces the formation of harmful greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane by not allowing waste wood to naturally decompose.

Energy management has replaced the majority of campus lighting with energy-efficient bulbs. The campus is also buying food for its dining halls from local suppliers and the University Meat Lab, reducing the amount of fuel used for transportation. Lastly, 20 percent of campus waste is recycled and MU has launched a pilot compost project.

A nonprofit group acknowledged these efforts when it gave the university an overall grade of C- for sustainability and a C for Climate Change and Energy on campus in September on This score is higher than many other universities in surrounding states.

The Sustainable Endowments Institute's Web site, which has in-depth profiles for 300 colleges in the U.S., is the only independent sustainability evaluation of campus operations and endowment investments. It uses independent research and voluntary responses from schools to determine the grade, which is used to help schools learn from one another's experiences — just as the Rocky Mountain Institute's project intends to do.

While the grade recognized MU's initiatives, it leaves room for improvement.

"Students have been responsible for a lot of coordination, and institutionalized coordination would help a lot," Datema said. "An innovative partnership to promote these issues would bring it all together in one place. If we tighten up communication, we can deal with these issues efficiently."

New ideas from the other universities and brainstorming sessions could help MU address these obstacles.

"Having the input of a world-class sustainability consulting firm on what we're doing on campus is incredibly valuable," Datema said. "They have extensive knowledge that we may not have. They have a lot of innovative approaches and are very creative and good at what they do. We'll hear a lot of ideas we haven't thought of that could work really well."

Researchers from the institute have begun visiting the campuses, and MU expects to host them in January.

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