The earth we live on
Students, officials reflect on MSU's environmental impacts as Earth Day approaches
Editor’s note: This article was changed to accurately reflect Northwestern’s use of green power in comparison with other Big Ten universities.
Marco Sanchez takes “bleeding green” to a whole new level. Before he came to MSU, his passion for being green had not branched beyond his love for the Spartans. But after going on a trip for a fisheries and wildlife class to a campsite near Houghton Lake, Mich., in summer 2009, his love for being environmentally friendly grew beyond MSU’s campus and blossomed into a love for the environment.
“When you go out and actually experience things in those ways, you realize what is out there and how cool it is,” the fisheries and wildlife senior said. “You think about large issues like advocating for cleaner energy, and then you have some context.”
This Sunday, Earth Day, Sanchez and other members of the Fisheries and Wildlife Club will team up with other environmental organizations in the community to host Earth Day Extravaganza from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Fenner Nature Center, 2020 E. Mount Hope Ave. in Lansing, in honor of Earth Day. The event will celebrate nature through hiking tours, interacting with live animals and helping to break the Guinness World Record for having the most people picnicking worldwide in a 24-hour period.
In past years, MSU has made an effort to become more environmentally friendly, both in its research and its energy sources, including making a pledge through the approval of the Energy Transition Plan last week to prioritize a switch to 100 percent renewable energy at some point in the future. But some students and professors at MSU are concerned that the plan is not aggressive enough, as campus still primarily depends on coal power, and MSU has investments in some companies which provide nonrenewable energy.
Five months into designing a solar-powered anaerobic digester as a graduation requirement for a bioengineering class, biosystems engineering senior Miranda Sperry and her classmates realized they weren’t only making a project for one of their classes; their work has the potential to evolve into an energy source for farming communities in Central America.
Students in the biosystems and agricultural sector of the College of Engineering are required to complete similar projects during their senior years, and many of the projects are related to sustainability.
“It isn’t just for a degree,” she said. “It is for a bigger purpose that will help people and promote more research.”
Sperry’s group built a digester that could convert waste into energy and is heated and powered through solar energy, she said.
Wei Liao, the biosystems and agricultural engineering assistant professor who advised Sperry’s group, said the research project will be passed on to a group of graduate students who will begin testing the digester prototype to determine how to acclimate the design to climates of Central American countries. The project is funded by a grant from the Department of State. Eventually, the digester design will be sent to the University of Costa Rica and marketed to villages, Liao said.
“They have a lot of food waste, and animal manure is an issue,” he said. “It is a win-win solution for the whole sector of Central America.”
MSU researchers also are working to develop green technology to benefit the environment on campus as well, said Ruth Kline-Robach, a specialist in the Institute of Water Research.
She said the institute has been studying rainfall management, and researchers from colleges across campus have come together in an effort to study and protect local watersheds. Through the past decade, the university has switched to porous pavement to pave new roads, planted greens on roofs of some buildings and built rain gardens at Erickson Hall and the MSU Surplus Store and Recycling Center, all of which redirect some of the rainfall so it does not damage the Red Cedar River flowing through campus.
“We’re using the campus as a living and learning laboratory,” she said of MSU’s research. “The students get a learning experience, the faculty get to conduct some research and the university and all of us benefit from improved water quality.”
Jennifer Battle, assistant director for the Office of Campus Sustainability, said energy on campus also has been saved by transferring some of the physical Internet servers on campus into virtual servers, which require less power.
Heating and air conditioning systems also are run less throughout the day to save as much as 20 percent of energy in some buildings, she said.
Although some MSU students and researchers have made environmentally friendly research a priority for years, it was not until last Friday that the MSU Board of Trustees unanimously approved the Energy Transition Plan.
The plan emphasizes the university’s goal of becoming a campus powered by 100 percent renewable energy, although it does not set a specific date when this goal will be reached. It also calls for 40 percent renewable energy by the year 2030, with investment in research for renewable energy sources, implementation of more aggressive building energy standards and maximizing the use of alternative, cleaner fuels — subject to availability, technical and regulatory constraints.
Trustee Brian Breslin said he supported the plan because it is aggressive in pursuing research related to renewable energy, but does not make unrealistic promises about green technology that he fears might be unreliable.
Critics of the plan, such as members of student groups MSU Greenpeace and MSU Beyond Coal, have said it is not aggressive enough compared to other universities’ energy policies. The groups are going to work to create a new energy transition plan with an end goal of 100 percent renewable energy, and they intend to outline it with a plan to help MSU switch away from coal power as soon as possible, said English senior Talya Tavor, a member of MSU Beyond Coal.
Communication senior Christopher Van Nest said he applauds MSU for passing the Energy Transition Plan, but still has concerns about MSU’s reliance on nonrenewable energy.
“I think it is hypocritical that MSU depends on the amount of coal it uses,” he said. “They say they’re going green, but we still rely mostly on coal for energy.”
Forestry professor David Skole, who worked on the Energy Transition Steering Committee that developed the plan, said he has encouraged the students to pursue their own plan, although he supports goals of the current Energy Transition Plan.
He wishes the university would have set goals to review the specifics about MSU’s energy goals more frequently. Right now, the plan calls for a review of energy technology on the market every five years, he said.
“I think the plan ought to be reviewed every year,” he said.
In comparison to other energy plans in the Big Ten, the University of Illinois passed the Illinois Climate Action Plan, which set a goal of complete carbon neutrality by the year 2050, and the University of Iowa set a plan to reach 40 percent renewable energy by the year 2020.
Investing in the environment
The Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, challenged the Big Ten to see which schools could purchase the most green power, and Northwestern University led the pack in terms of most green power purchased, said Blaine Collison, director of the EPA’s Green Power Partnership.
Northwestern’s campus is powered by about 30 percent green power purchased by the university, with the University of Wisconsin, Ohio State University and the University of Iowa following at 16 percent, 10 percent and 3 percent respectively. Collison said green power has less damaging effects on the land, and he wishes more universities, such as MSU, would make it a higher priority.
Currently, MSU is powered by less than 2 percent renewable energy, according to the Energy Transition Plan.
Breslin said once the renewable energy sources are tested and proven to be more dependable and economically sound, MSU can feel more comfortable depending solely on renewable energy.
A report of the MSU Common Investment Fund from the 2011 fiscal year showed investment managers put money into about 30 companies who specifically state they are focused on non-renewable energy sources such as petroleum, natural gas and nuclear energy and profited more than $19 million dollars. Overall, MSU invested in at least 47 energy-related companies, some of which are dedicated to green or hybrid energy.
In an email, Investments and Financial Management Director Glen Klein said investment managers primarily consider the possible returns of investments when choosing where to send MSU’s funds.
“Successful investment managers and partnerships are very concerned about the ethics of the companies they invest in since companies with poor ethics typically do not stand the test of time,” he said. “MSU investment managers or partnerships will select between renewable energy investments and nonrenewable investments based primarily on the expected returns of these investments.”
For Sanchez, as a part of the Fisheries and Wildlife Club, he believes MSU has made strides in being environmentally friendly, but they shouldn’t stop yet.
“If we, as a land grant university, cannot be leaders in the green movement, that’s not great news for the rest of society,” he said. “Coming out of Michigan State, every student should be knowledgeable about making eco-friendly choices.”