Fossil fuels are incredible. Just one gallon of gas can propel my car from Sherman to Dallas. Imagine if you had to push a car from Sherman to Dallas. These products of ancient photosynthesis afford us luxuries previously unavailable to kings and queens, but as we all know, there are two problems. Every gallon of fuel that is burned cannot be burned again, and when we burn fuel we convert a valuable resource into pollutants.
Because fossil fuels are nonrenewable, society has no choice but to shift to renewable fuels. This will take foresight, determination, creativity, and effort. It is one of the great challenges of the first part of the 21st century. Austin College is doing its part.
The College’s electricity usage is now almost entirely from renewable sources, nearly 100 percent wind-generated. The only exceptions are electricity in the few college-owned houses that are rented and the Village on Grand cottages where students pay their own utility bills. This represents a milestone in the progress of Austin College Thinking Green.
When we first tallied our greenhouse gas emissions in 2008, before beginning the shift to wind power, electricity accounted for 50 percent of the total. The shift to wind-generated electricity has cut those emissions by almost half in less than 10 years. (The College’s greenhouse gas reports, climate action plan, and other documents are publicly available at reporting.secondnature.org). If all institutions cut their emissions that quickly, climate change would pose a much less daunting challenge.
Some expect a shift to renewable energy to be horribly expensive, but Austin College Thinking Green has actually saved money. That is because we save about five times as much from reduced waste as we pay extra for wind power. In other words, we buy electricity that is a bit more expensive, but we use substantially less per square foot than we did at the outset of this effort—thanks to efficiency upgrades and individual efforts to avoid waste.
How much more would you expect to pay for wind power? Students often guess 25 or 50 percent, but the College only pays about 2 percent more to buy clean, wind-generated electricity instead of the dirtiest, coal-generated electricity. I challenge you to think of another product where the price difference between the lowest and highest quality is only 2 percent.
Meanwhile, we have saved more than 2 percent, thanks to behavioral changes and technical upgrades that have reduced energy consumption per square foot. Annual weather variation, changes in the number of students on campus, and campus construction, such as the completion of the IDEA Center, can make it difficult to determine the effects of particular energy saving efforts. But everyone’s efforts to avoid waste, combined with upgrades to campus systems and the operation of those systems, have resulted in less electricity use per square foot of campus buildings. Heating, cooling, and lighting systems are all more energy efficient, thanks to technical upgrades. For example, variable speed fans and more precise system controllers recently have been installed in the central power plant. And, just last fall, outdoor lighting was converted to lower energy (and yet brighter) light emitting diodes (LEDs). Indoor lighting is being converted as funds permit. Individuals can save energy in a similar manner in homes if they maintain their heat pump, clean or change furnace filters regularly, install and use a programmable thermostat and efficient light bulbs—and turn off the lights when leaving a room.
The shift to wind energy is only one recent accomplishment of Austin College Thinking Green. You are probably aware of the Green Building Council’s LEED Gold certification of the IDEA Center, and that Princeton Review recognizes the College as one of the nation’s green schools. You may not be aware of efforts led by students. Students lead, organize, and manage AC Unplugged, an annual energy-saving competition among residence halls, and GreenServe, an annual green workday in the spring. The students also voted themselves a modest green fee to be used for funding greening projects, such as installation of water bottle filling stations in residence halls. A student committee selects the uses for those funds. These are just some of the ways students contribute to Thinking Green.
On behalf of the environmental studies program, I would like to thank President Marjorie Hass, President Emeritus Oscar Page, and the members of the Board of Trustees for leading this effort; John Jennings, David Turk, and the other members of the Physical Plant staff for making the campus more energy efficient; all students involved in Austin College Thinking Green; and every member of the campus community who has contributed to these efforts.