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President's Corner


Conservation as a global and local imperative

 

The discovery of oil in Pennsylvania in 1859 opened the way to more than a century of remarkably inexpensive and powerful energy. Oil and other fossil fuels have given the United States and other developed countries access to many things that we take for granted but that most cultures in history would have considered luxuries, including a strong and resilient economy, plenty of food and clothing, warm houses and workplaces in winter and cool ones in summer, and comfortable travel to
other lands.

Lighting strike
Bikers ride from UCAR's Center Green campus to Foothills Laboratory on a new path connecting the two sites. (Photo by Carlye Calvin, UCAR.)

All of these are imminently threatened by the ever-increasing rate of consumption of fossil fuels, which in a finite world are becoming scarcer with each passing day. Many analysts believe we have already passed, or will pass within the next 30 years, the threshold known as Peak Oil. This is the point when at least half of the world's recoverable oil supplies have been tapped. As noted by EnergyBulletin.net, "Peak Oil means not 'running out of oil,' but 'running out of cheap oil'." The site also observes that the impact of passing the Peak Oil threshold will be enormous: "Without significant successful cultural reform, economic and social decline seems inevitable." (See "On the Web.").

Many scientists at UCAR universities and NCAR study the direct and indirect effects of fossil-fuel consumption, which influence the environment in both the short term (through diminished air quality, oil spills, and other environmental degradation) and the long term (through global and regional climate change due to greenhouse gas emissions). Even without these consequences, one might suppose that the impending era of Peak Oil would spur governments to develop policies to curtail oil consumption, buying time until societies can adjust to the end of the era of cheap oil and develop alternative energy sources.

Sadly, the U.S. government's energy and economic policies over the decades have actually encouraged consumption while discouraging conservation, an approach that continues to this day. The shortsightedness of long-term U.S. energy policy will soon become very clear to all Americans as oil prices continue to rise. In my view, this economic crisis will affect the United States and other countries well before climate change really kicks in. Many years from now, the failure of our federal government to have adequately planned for this obviously enormous threat could make the response to Hurricane Katrina, by comparison, look like a model of excellence.

How can UCAR members help address this problem from within their universities? Along with carrying out research to clarify the benefits and threats of our nation's reliance on oil, we can act more directly. In the absence of a stronger and more comprehensive federal policy, many individuals, industries, states, and cities have been developing "green" practices for their lives and businesses. In the process, they not only contribute significantly to the conservation of limited energy resources, but also save money and create jobs at the same time.

The ongoing greening of UCAR

After interesting discussions with NCAR scientist Susanne Moser about how UCAR rates as a climate-friendly organization, I decided to look into what UCAR does now to reduce its consumption of fossil fuels, thereby shrinking its footprint on the environment and climate.

UCAR's total water and energy (natural gas and electricity) use and costs in 2005 are shown in the table below. Minimizing our use of water not only saves the institution (and taxpayers) money but also helps improve the overall water supply for our region, which struggles with periodic droughts. Many of our grounds, including the area surrounding the new chemistry building at Foothills Laboratory, are xeriscaped to minimize water demands.

UCAR Water and Energy Use and Costs in FY05
(courtesy John Pereira, UCAR)

Water
Amount consumed
(U.S. liquid gallons)
Cost
(to nearest $1K)
Irrigation quality
1,106,000
$13,000
Potable quality
12,056,000
$105,000

Energy

Amount
consumed

Equivalent
gals. gas

Cost
(to nearest $10K)
Natural gas
911,160 therms
729,602
$340,000
Electricity
39,000,000 kWh
1,065,558
$1,450,000

Our energy costs of $1.8 million represented about 1% of our total budget in FY05. UCAR has put significant effort into making its buildings more energy-efficient (see sidebar). In addition, we strive to help our staff reduce their driving to and from work and to and from the airport for business trips. To estimate the total gasoline consumption, I assumed our approximately 1,300 employees drove solo an average of 20 miles per day to and from work, using an average of 20 miles per gallon of gasoline at $2.50 per gallon. In this case, during a year with 225 working days, UCAR commuters would drive a total of 5,850,000 miles and use 292,500 gallons of gasoline at a cost of around $730,000.

Recycling at UCAR

One important way to reduce energy usage indirectly is by recycling as much as possible. Below is a summary of UCAR's recycling activities. All figures are for 2005 unless otherwise noted. Numbers are rounded to the nearest 1,000 pounds.

  • Computers and electronics (2001–05): 140,000 pounds recycled, diverting nearly 12,000 pounds of lead from landfills
  • Batteries (2001–05): 4,000 pounds
  • Office paper: 106,000 pounds
  • Commingled containers: 9,000 pounds
  • Compost: 9,000 pounds

In addition, UCAR's all-staff events now have a zero-waste policy: all containers, cups, plates, food scraps, etc., are recycled.

Out-of-town trips add to these numbers. Last fiscal year UCAR employees took 4,056 business trips, most of them involving air travel. If one assumes that each trip included a drive to Denver International Airport and back—a round trip of roughly 90 miles from Boulder—the total miles driven would be more than 365,000, consuming more than 18,000 gallons of gasoline and costing about $45,000. The actual cost to programs would be more than double this amount, due to the current reimbursement rate of 35 cents per mile. Parking fees would add even more to these program costs.

To reduce the fiscal and environmental impact of these trips, UCAR provides a number of options to employees. Perhaps the most powerful is the Regional Transportation District (RTD) Eco Pass, which UCAR buys for all employees at a total cost (in 2006) of $48,744, or about $38 per employee. These passes may be used for free travel (both business and personal) on buses and trains throughout the Denver-Boulder RTD system, including airport buses. Most of the cost of an employee's Eco Pass is recouped if an employee takes only one trip to the airport and back per year in lieu of a reimbursed car trip.
UCAR also encourages other alternatives to single-occupancy commuting:

  • A free shuttle service connects UCAR's three main Boulder campuses, as well as convenient RTD bus stops, with half-hourly service throughout the workday.
  • A "blue bike" program, run mainly by UCAR volunteers, makes more than a dozen bikes available for employees and official visitors to ride between campuses.
  • Our telecommuting policy allows employees to work part of the time at home, or to arrange flexible working hours such as four 10-hour days per week, under appropriate circumstances.

As the most recent sign of our commitment to alternative travel, UCAR built a bike path (see photo) connecting the Center Green and Foothills Lab campuses, which together house the majority of UCAR, NCAR, and UOP staff. The path, which runs underneath Foothills Parkway and just above a rail line, was dedicated in February. It provides a safe, fast route by bike or foot between the campuses, allowing staff and visitors to replace a drive of nearly one mile with a pleasant quarter-mile walk or bike ride. After paying for the path's construction, UCAR donated it to the city of Boulder, which will provide plowing and other maintenance.

Many university campuses are taking major strides toward becoming carbon neutral, attempting to reduce their greenhouse emissions and to offset those that remain (such as for work-related air travel). For example, UCAR member Arizona State University is one of 12 institutions awarded Campus Ecology Recognition for 2004–05 by the National Wildlife Federation, which honored ASU's institution-wide commitment to a greener campus. What is your institution doing? I invite your comments and suggestions. Perhaps by sharing, we can inspire each other to do more and generate new ideas. While one individual or one corporation does not make an appreciable difference in how our nation will deal with Peak Oil, thousands of organizations and millions of people can make a real difference.

Rick Anthes

UCAR's efforts to conserve energy

Below are some ways in which new and renovated UCAR buildings have been designed to reduce energy use and costs.

  • Building exteriors feature enhanced insulation as well as insulated glass.
  • All interior lights have electronic ballasts and energy-saving lamps.
  • Rooms include occupancy sensors to control lighting and ventilation.
  • All systems are designed with setbacks to reduce energy consumption at night or when areas are unoccupied.
  • Off-site production emissions during construction were reduced by using natural renewable materials. For example, the wall protection is sisal (a plant-derived fiber) and the floors are sealed concrete. During the excavation and destruction phases of construction, concrete and asphalt removed from the sites were recycled.
  • The second phase of utility refurbishments to the Mesa Lab will allow for additional improvements to energy systems.
  • A recently completed system in the Scientific Computing Division's computer room allows excess heat to be directed toward heating other parts of the Mesa Lab.
  • UCAR has signed up with Xcel, our local utility, to purchase blocks of wind energy equivalent to 5% of our total usage.

 

On the Web
 

Peak Oil Primer (EnergyBulletin.net)

Campus Ecology (National Wildfire Federation)

Carbon offsetting (Climate Care)

 
 

 

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