UC’s green investments pay off

January 18, 2012
By: Harry Mok, UC Newsroom

The University of California is saving $32 million a year on energy and remains the leader in higher education for adopting green building standards.

Those achievements and others are outlined in the 2011 UC Annual Report on Sustainable Practices at the Board of Regents meeting today (Jan. 18) at UC Riverside.

The UC system added 38 LEED-green certified facilities during 2011 and now has 87, which continues to be the most of any university in the country, according to the annual report.

Much of UC's $32 million in annual savings in energy use, up from $21 million in 2010, comes from participation in an Energy Efficiency Partnership with the California State University, California Community Colleges and the state's investor-owned utility companies.

Since the partnership's inception in 2004, UC has received $47.5 million in grants, which it coupled with more than $150 million in campus contributions and some external financing to fund energy efficiency projects. The projects include retrofitting lighting, heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems to be more energy efficient.

"Energy efficiency is a cornerstone of UC's sustainability efforts," said Nathan Brostrom, UC's vice president for business operations, who is presenting the annual report to the regents. "Going green is the smart thing to do. These projects reduce energy use and cut costs while improving the comfort, health and safety of UC facilities."

UC's energy conservation efforts are among the key UC Working Smarter administrative efficiency initiatives.

The energy reductions achieved have kept roughly 168,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases from being released, equal to approximately 10 percent of UC's 2010 carbon footprint.

UC's Policy on Sustainable Practices guides campuses in the areas of green building, clean energy, sustainable transportation, climate protection, sustainable operations, waste reduction and recycling, environmentally preferable purchasing and sustainable foodservice. In 2012, UC is studying the possibility of adding water conservation and storm-water management as a ninth area of coverage for its sustainability policy.

Early adopter

UC recognized that using LEED guidelines could help cut energy use and the carbon footprint of its buildings and was an early adopter, serving as a pilot site for evaluating the certification process in university settings.

"The UC system serves as a role model, not just from a policy standpoint but also in the way it motivates and engages people across its campuses and communities in the conversation," said Kristin Ferguson, higher education associate for the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council, which first issued LEED guidelines in 2000. "The culture of sustainability that the UC system has been able to create is admirable and gives peer institutions a model to replicate on their campuses."

Over its lifespan, a LEED building will have lower operational costs because it's built to use less energy and water while creating an environmentally friendly and healthier space for its occupants, said Jordan Sager, who is the LEED project manager at UC Santa Barbara.

A building or renovation built to LEED specifications can cost about 2 percent more than standard construction, but universities typically expect decades of use from facilities, Sager said.

"It makes sense for organizations like us to build the best building we can up front," he said. One of the best ways to do that, Sager explained, is by employing LEED guidelines to make buildings greener and cheaper to operate.

LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is the industry standard third-party certification program created by the U.S. Green Building Council that incorporates a whole-building approach to sustainability by rating environmental impact and performance in such areas as location and planning, sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality.

LEED provides a common framework for building designers to document features in a way that avoids "green washing," or unsubstantiated claims of sustainability, said Gary Dahl, the director of project management for major capital projects at UC Davis.

"This is third-party verification, not just the building owner or operator claiming something is green," Dahl said. "You have to prove it through peer review."

LEED rating systems generally are based on a 100-point scale with four levels of certification: scores of up to 49 points are Certified, 50-59 are Silver, 60-79 are Gold and 80 or more are Platinum. UC campuses have seven new and renovated facilities rated Platinum.

In 2004, UC's sustainability policy mandated LEED equivalency for new construction or renovations. Projects approved after July 1, 2009 (except medical center acute care facilities) must go through LEED certification.

Aiming for net-zero

LEED facilities contribute to the major goals of UC's sustainability policy: to reduce energy use to 10 percent below 2000 levels by 2014 and cut greenhouse gas emissions to 2000 levels by 2014. By 2020, UC has committed to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels, to achieve zero waste sent to landfills and have 20 percent of the food served on campuses come from sustainable sources. After meeting its 2020 goals, UC plans to achieve a net-zero carbon footprint as soon as possible.

The sustainability report cited UC Davis West Village, which opened in 2011, for its innovative design as the largest zero-net energy community in the country.

West Village produces as much energy onsite as it consumes and could serve as a vision for future sustainable development at UC and elsewhere. It includes student, staff and faculty housing; commercial space and the just-opened Sacramento City College Davis Center.

The village's photovoltaic system is expected to provide enough power for its first 1,980 apartments and commercial spaces. But the heart of West Village's zero-net energy strategy is cutting use.

Technologies at the village, such as highly efficient lighting with occupancy sensors and daylighting — using sunshine as much as possible — are expected to cut energy use by 60 percent when compared to standard lighting. In fact, UC Davis has committed to a 60 percent reduction in the entire campus's lighting energy consumption by the end of 2015. Once energy use is drastically reduced, renewable energy production can make the ambitious goal of carbon neutrality feasible.

Another major goal of UC's sustainability policy is reducing waste through recycling, reuse, composting and other means. Nine UC campuses have met the goal of diverting at least 50 percent of waste from landfills. Four campuses and the UC Davis Medical Center have achieved a 65 percent diversion rate.

Even as more colleges and universities embrace sustainability, UC continues to be recognized as a national leader. In 2011, UC campuses and facilities received 12 national and state awards and continue to be recognized in the top tiers of national campus sustainability rankings. UC also has received national media acclaim in publications such as New York Times, Forbes, and in television and radio news broadcasts.