“We want our campus to be sustainable, but we also set an example — the way universities do things affect the attitudes that our students have, what they take into the world, and the attitudes of people who look up to us … and in that way, have an effect on the world.”
With these inspiring words underscoring the importance of sustainability at The University of Texas at Austin and in higher education, President William Powers Jr. kicked off the first campus-wide Sustainability Symposium in September 2010.
This year the President’s Sustainability Steering Committee (PSSC), an active working group of faculty, staff and students dedicated to ongoing discussions about sustainability priorities at the university, has adopted the Sustainability Symposium, which served as the PSSC’s annual report to the university. The 2nd Annual UT Campus Sustainability Symposium took place Friday, Sept. 23 and showcased many promising sustainability-related research projects and operations led by faculty, staff and students.
Since last year’s symposium and Power’s compelling call to action, a number of key administrative developments have occurred to bolster growing support for sustainability across campus:
- Within the last year, the university has developed and launched its new Sustainability Portal, a campus-wide Web site that serves as the university’s front door to sustainability information and resources. Within the portal is the Sustainability Directory, an interactive database designed to more effectively communicate the scope and strength of the university’s academic offering related to sustainability. Both resources will increase and streamline information sharing around sustainability at the university.
- In 2010, UT participated in and achieved a Silver rating in the Sustainability, Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS), a new assessment program administered by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). In 2008, the university participated in the STARS pilot program as the only Texas research university to test various credits and benchmarks eventually included in STARS version 1.0.
- Sustainability is also a clear priority for students on campus with the adoption of two student government referendums in support of a student-paid green fee that will support environmental service related projects on campus. A student majority Green Fee Committee (GFC) was established to solicit, review and award funds, and in spring of last year chose to support 16 projects (from bike parking, to an organic micro-farm, to solar power charging stations) with funds ranging from $500 to $75,000 per grant.
- This past August, the main campus installed its first large solar photovoltaic system on top of Manor Garage. Facilitated through a research grant and Green Fee funding given to the Webber Energy Group, a UT mechanical engineering research team, the Manor Garage solar panels will serve as a demonstration project to advance research as well as raise awareness of the university’s interest in alternative energy sources.
Looking forward: Encouraging sustainability research on the horizon at UT
Rhykka Connelly, a research associate from the Center for Electromechanics, is engaged in promising research on organic biofertilizers. Her current and future efforts to partner with the City of Austin Wastewater Utility at Hornsby Bend to harvest nutrient-enriched algae and study its effects on crop yields serve as an important first step to replacing unsustainable synthetic fertilizers. With partial funding from the Green Fee, Connelly will use the J.J. Pickle Research Campus as a living lab to treat a section of landscape with dried algae and compare its performance to that of commercial fertilizer currently used by the university. Connelly’s research has implications that reach beyond campus by mitigating environmental and economic issues facing the agricultural industry.
Faculty and students from the School of Architecture, Design Department in the College of Fine Arts and the Center for Sustainable Development are engaged in the Smart Building Initiative (SBI), an effort to engage individuals on campus to decrease energy consumption. The SBI pilot program installed an energy monitoring system in Sutton Hall to provide room-level energy data, is building on student-developed software that would enable self-tracking of energy usage through smart phones, and will run tests to see how individual users might be influenced by the visualization of their personal energy consumption data. The goal of the SBI is to raise awareness and make smart energy usage a part of the university community’s everyday routine, while at the same time reducing energy costs for the university.
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