Green to gold – Sustainability Center reaching maturity

Thursday, October 10, 2013
by: Rene Abadie

1)Solar panels2)Sustainability Center

1) Byron Patterson, left, director of Southeastern's Physical Plant discusses the solar panels atop the university's Biology Building with Junkan Ma, center, associate professor of engineering technology, and student Nathan K. Taylor.

2) Southeastern Industrial Technology Instructor Ed Rode, center, goes over surveying notes at the university's Sustainability Center with students Robert Arena, left of Mandeville and Chase Carrier of Walker. The students performed much of the surveying work for water retention ponds as part of the engineering technology course.

HAMMOND - At Southeastern Louisiana University, green and gold are more than the official colors of the university.

These days the colors have taken on new significance: green for the ambitious environmental and sustainability initiative that is making the campus – in the words of some independent observers – possibly the greenest institution in the state; and gold for the precious energy dollars saved in a time of increasingly tightened budgets.

Precise energy management in buildings, solar panels to generate electricity and hot water, biodiesel from spent cooking oil and grease to power vehicles and equipment, major increases in recycling with a reduction in landfill waste, a tree and plant farm for university landscaping, and wise use of rainwater runoff are just some of the elements of the new Sustainability Center being developed on Southeastern's north campus at the site of the former Horticulture Center.

And more innovations are in the plans.

With a goal to be 80 percent off the grid by 2020, Southeastern is fast earning a reputation as the greenest university in the state, if not the South. In recent months, visitors from a number of universities – including Tulane, Southern in Baton Rouge, the University of New Orleans, and LSU Shreveport – as well as representatives from school districts, parish management groups and engineering firms, have all toured Southeastern's sustainability operations.

"In my 30 plus years in this profession, the work Southeastern is doing is as good as I've seen in the state, and I would surmise this program is probably one of the best in the country," said Jay Labarre, CEO and president of Labarre Associates of Denham Springs, a full service architectural and facilities management firm. "If we look at value per dollar, I would say that Southeastern is among the best in the nation with its sustainability program."

"We owe taxpayers and tuition-paying students a responsibility to be as efficient as possible in all areas. Certainly that includes energy usage," said Southeastern President John L. Crain. "Our faculty, staff and students have demonstrated a strong desire to be on the leading edge in sustainability efforts, and our students in particular have demonstrated financial support of these efforts and are benefitting from the learning opportunities. From a pure budget standpoint, this has made a significant difference in the financial picture of the university, which has been so impacted by state budget reductions."

"The effort was born out of necessity," explained Director of Physical Plant Byron Patterson, who is leading the effort. "Budget cuts forced us to think in terms of economics."

In 2010, the university's initial efforts with energy conservation and biofuel production saved the university $1.2 million, encouraging the plant staff to look for additional savings.

Early efforts, Patterson noted, included building a training center to prepare staff to handle environmental controls adjustments and repairs in the various buildings on campus. This precluded the need to utilize pricey environmental control consultants. The installation of an energy center, which monitors temperature and humidity in nearly every campus building, also gave staff more remote control of building environments.

The computer system allows the staff to recommission a building every year or so, a process Patterson likens to "tuning a car," in order to catch problems early and to maximize energy efficiency.

One of the most successful innovations on campus has been the installation of solar panels to generate hot water in various buildings. Funded largely by the Southeastern Student Tech Fee Committee, which provides grants to university departments for technology that has strong educational applicability, the panels have been placed at the Kinesiology and Health Sciences Building, the Dyson Administration Building, the Biology Building and the Sustainability Center itself.

Seven rows or 42 individual panels at the Kinesiology and Health Sciences building were originally intended to heat the indoor pool, Patterson explained.

"The panels were generating so much hot water, we did some re-piping and now provide heated water for the whole building, which includes locker rooms for the tennis and track teams," he said. "In effect, it has allowed us to place the boilers in that building in a dormant stage, which are only used when outside temperatures are very low."

Eventually solar panels are expected to be used for an increasing number of buildings, including residence halls. University officials foresee turning Cardinal Newman Hall, a STEM residence hall, into Southeastern's first truly "green" residential facility.

Solar panels are also used to generate electricity, helping to power part of the Physical Plant office and the Sustainability Center.

All of the energy efforts are also used in research by students in the university's Energy Engineering Technology program.

"Solar energy to generate electricity is basically the 'eye candy' of green power," Patterson said. "The technology is not nearly as effective and efficient as solar power to generate hot water. But it does provide a source of energy that needs to be researched and evaluated, so it's important our students have access to a photovoltaic system."

Other elements in the Sustainability Center include:

Recycling – By eventually recycling 80 percent of waste on campus and only 20 percent going to waste, the university earns money on recycled products and saves on costs associated with waste disposal.

Biofuels – The center already operates one small biodiesel generating plant, which powers lawnmowers, tractors and other landscape equipment. The Sustainability Center will incorporate another much larger unit to generate enough fuel to run all the Lion Traxx on-campus shuttle buses. Food services on campus and area restaurants are providing waste cooking oil and grease that forms the basic feedstock for biodiesel. The university produces biodiesel for 69 cents per gallon compared to the much higher retail price.

Water conservation – With one rainwater retention pond in place and two more now under construction, the center will self-generate all water required to propagate plants and trees and other purposes in the center.

Education center – Two technology-rich classrooms, designed in large part by engineering technology students to facilitate study and research, are included as part of the Sustainability Center for use in student research, instruction and other educational activities.

Bio-mass Unit – Future plans call for a large bio-mass unit to cleanly burn campus refuse and other feedstock to power the whole Sustainability Center.

Several low-tech elements complement the university's green efforts, including "tray-less" days at the student cafeteria to reduce food waste and water consumption and a university-wide "Go Green, Keep It Clean" anti-litter campaign. In addition, the university adopted a four-day work week during summers and a four and one-half day week the rest of the year to conserve energy costs.

"The Student Tech Fee Committee has been key in supporting the sustainability initiative," said Patterson, noting that more than $550,000 in grants has been awarded by the student-majority committee over the last several years.

And whether it's surveying the land and laying out the dimensions for a rainwater run-off pond, designing the frames to support solar panels, or measuring energy obtained through various sources, students at Southeastern are getting hands-on technological and research opportunities as they assist in helping the university build one of the foremost Sustainability Centers in the South.

"Our faculty and students are working with university staff to help design the Sustainability Center," said Sebastian van Delden, head of the Department of Computer Science and Industrial Technology. "The center provides a hands-on learning environment, as well as research opportunities for our students. With several types of energy technologies, our students will have the ability to make adjustments to these devices and observe in real time how the energy output is affected. It's a proving ground to help determine what works best and can be implemented on campus to save energy costs."

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