SU Says Goodbye to Carbon Footprint

2012-02-08
By Mike Thee
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Seattle University's buildings are carbon neutral. Just pause a moment and let that sink in. Yes, that's right-through new infrastructure enhancements and offsets, our campus buildings have completely shed their carbon footprints, further cementing the university's status as a leader in sustainability.

David Brugman, assistant director of utilities and sustainability, is playing an instrumental role in making SU's campus more energy-efficient. It is unknown how many colleges and universities in the country can claim their buildings are carbon neutral, but Brugman believes the list is pretty short.

SU's buildings have achieved carbon neutrality largely through two recent developments. First, a new, highly efficient heating loop serving five facilities has reduced the buildings' carbon output by 18 percent. Second, the university is offsetting the remaining 82 percent primarily by investing in a project that's turning cow manure into power.   

A low-carbon diet for our buildings  

Facilities Services partnered with McKinstry this summer to install a new boiler plant in Loyola. The seven boilers heat water and push it into an underground loop that, in turn, heats the air and water of five buildings: Loyola, Casey, Engineering, Bannan and the Biology wing (which is treated as a separate building).

With the new heating loop, the university is cutting its carbon dioxide emissions by two million pounds annually. That's the equivalent of annually planting 442 acres of trees…or taking 156 homes off the power grid…or removing 310 cars from the road. Putting it another way, we'd have to cover Championship Field with solar panels 8.6 times to get the same reduction in carbon, and that would cost about $11 million-about eight times the new heating loop's cost.

The new boiler system is also connected to a pre-existing loop that heats the Garrand, Admin and Pigott buildings. This allows for more redundancies and flexibility, explains Cal Ihler, associate director of facilities operations and maintenance. For example, when the temperatures fall but it's not too cold, the university is able to heat all eight buildings off the new Loyola boilers. This eliminates the need to fire up the other boiler plant and allows us to take full advantage of the extremely efficient Loyola boilers. (Oh, did we mention that 90 percent of the Loyola boilers' cast iron components were made from post-consumer recyclable materials?)

The university has increased its energy efficiency even further by switching its fuel source from steam to natural gas. "Natural gas has a lower carbon content per unit of energy than steam," Brugman says. "Another problem with steam is that there's this whole system that's charged and sitting there, even when you're not using it, losing heat. And we were paying for those losses."

Brugman adds that the shift to natural gas is saving the university lots of water, too-an estimated 822,000 gallons a year. "After we condensed and used the steam, the water would go down the drain and into the sewer," says Brugman.

Brugman compares these efficiency improvements to doing maintenance on a car. "What we're doing is tuning up the campus."

Lighter on the earth-and the wallet  

Ihler sees the new heating loop and the switch to natural gas as the latest chapter in SU's longstanding commitment to eco-friendly practices. "We've been so consistently progressive in our operations that it's showing in our fuel usage and energy cost," he says.

Indeed, Seattle University consumes 30 percent less energy on average than other institutions of comparable size and climate, according to a Sightlines report.  

The new heating loop is also expected to lower the university's heating bills by $138,000 a year. The university also received a one-time $103,000 rebate from Puget Sound Energy for installing equipment that is more energy-efficient than what code requires. What this means is that the university will break even on the cost of the upgrade in less than nine years. Brugman points out that the heating infrastructure for the five most directly affected buildings was due for an upgrade anyway, so it was a bonus that the university was able to do so in such an energy-efficient way.

The next frontier  

The new heating loop, switch to natural gas and offsets are helping the university meet its goals under the American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment. As a key part of the commitment, SU has pledged to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 50 percent by 2035.  

Brugman is quick to point out that the carbon from our buildings represents about 20 percent of our total footprint. As a next step, "We need to look at the twin 'white elephants' in the room - air travel and commuting," each of which constitutes approximately 40 percent of our carbon emissions.

These are significant challenges, to be sure, yet by no means insurmountable given the SU community's track record on sustainability.