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It’s not easy being green

Ontario universities require deep pockets to reach sustainability goals

Queen’s saves on energy  in its collaboration with Kingston General Hospital, at  its cogeneration facility on King Street, just south of campus.

Queen’s saves on energy in its collaboration with Kingston General Hospital, at its cogeneration facility on King Street, just south of campus. (Charlotte Gagnier)

 


Queen’s is well-poised to become one of Canada’s most sustainable university campuses. Rather, it would be, if money was no object.

According to sources, the University’s funding for sustainability investments is constrained, which could limit its ability to reach its long-term environmental goals. Aaron Ball, the University’s sustainability manager, was unavailable for comment on the matter.

One of the University’s long-term goals is carbon neutrality, which it has pledged to achieve by 2040, as outlined in its Climate Action Plan (CAP), drafted last year in partnership with the Delphi Group, a sustainability-focused consultancy firm.

The CAP maps out ways to increase Queen’s energy efficiency, including updating window panes to avoid heat-escape, retrofitting older buildings with the latest in energy efficient technology, and further investing in renewable energy sources. The plan also includes goals of greater environmental awareness within the Queen’s community, waste reduction and cleaner means of transportation in and around campus.

Nisha Midha, last year’s Media Director for Queen’s Backing Action on Climate Change (QBACC), said that QBACC was happy with the result of the partnership with Delphi Group.

Last Spring, the student-run club successfully petitioned over 700 signatures to have the carbon neutrality goal added into the CAP. Should Queen’s meet this target, it will achieve net zero carbon emissions, eradicating its carbon footprint.

According to Midha, ArtSci ’13, the fact that Queen’s has these goals signifies its environmental progressiveness as an institution.

“They really have the right idea in mind: not just doing things to cut costs and look good from the outside,” Midha said.

Yet, sometimes the right idea comes with a price.

“There are always downfalls to making a big, big commitment like that,” Midha said. “They’re coming up to a standstill with funding this project.” Midha added that the limited visibility of progress on campus intensifies the challenge to maintain funds.

“As a university, it’s really tricky to put all that money into it and then not have a nice shiny gold label saying we’ve changed our piping system, which will save us money in a hundred years,” Midha said. “That’s not sexy or appealing.” Despite the lack of excitement induced by technical changes in infrastructure, Midha stressed how Queen’s, as an educational institution, should play a large role in pioneering the latest innovations in environmental sustainability.

“Queen’s needs to be setting an example, setting a really, really high bar,” she said.

Eric Shoesmith, ArtSci ’13, and last year’s co-director of QBACC, said that students play a vital role in motivating this precedent of sustainable innovation.

“[Students] must continually demand progressive environmental solutions on campus, especially considering our university’s fiscal constraints and that the goal for carbon neutrality is 27 years from now,” he said. “If we become complacent about sustainability, I worry that the CAP may end up becoming a document that just gathers dust on the shelf.”

Colin Robinson, commissioner of the environment and sustainability for the AMS, said it would be false to claim the university’s administration doesn’t view environmental sustainability as a priority.

“Queen’s has so many financial constraints. They have a whole lot more on their plate, which gets in the way of pursing sustainability,” Robinson, ArtSci ’13, said. “The administration definitely does care. They want to make a change in a way that’s mutually reinforcing.”

“The university would do well to integrate sustainability in ways that aren’t going to be as financially cumbersome,” he added.

Robinson said it’s difficult for an older university like Queen’s to be as innovative as newer schools.

“A lot of Queen’s buildings have historical building status, so there are legal constraints to what you can do in terms of infrastructural retrofits.”

While innovation may be more difficult for schools with deeper roots, it isn’t impossible.

Queen’s energy-conservation and waste-reduction initiatives are commended in this year’s Going Greener report, released at the beginning of June.

The report is the fourth update on the 2009 Ontario university presidents’ pledge, a commitment to developing comprehensive sustainability plans by Ontario’s post-secondary institutions. The update celebrates the progress of Ontario universities towards more sustainable campuses, despite budgetary constraints.

While the Ontario government imposes fiscal austerity on its province, the Going Greener report emphasizes how Ontarian universities are remaining committed to the environment by sourcing funding privately.

One of these schools is McMaster University in Hamilton, ON.

“We’re looking at an ambitious plan,” said Mohamed Attalla, assistant vice-president of McMaster’s Facility Services.

Attalla elaborated on the University’s latest master plan to invest $22 million in energy conservation before 2020.

“We’re investing with the expectation that we’ll reduce energy [use] by 25 per cent in the next five years,” Attalla said.

According to Attalla, this will happen in one respect by further implementing McMaster’s solar thermal pre-heating system, which has been successfully piloted on a smaller scale, in heating the campus swimming pool.

The grandiose initiative, recently approved by McMaster’s board of governors, will be funded by the University and a sizeable loan from the Bank of Canada.

McMaster justifies the financial magnitude of this endeavour with the exponential reduction in operational costs anticipated to accompany this energy-conservation initiative. Such savings are expected to offset the financial pressures of McMaster’s institutional growth, according to Attalla.

“The entire university, at all levels, is very environmentally conscientious in its way of thinking,” he said.

In addition to procuring debt, Ontario’s universities are resorting to in-house fundraising to provide the necessary resources for the innovation that increased sustainability requires.

This type of funding was responsible for implementing the University of Guelph’s Community Energy Plan, which drastically reduced energy consumption on Guelph’s campus in recent years and continues to prevent more than 1000 metric tonnes of CO2 emissions, each year.

Guelph’s Sustainability Coordinator, Gillian Maurice, attributed the massive success of Guelph’s Community Energy Plan to a common goal between those behind their physical plant services and the school’s student population.

“Physical resources wanted to save and they knew these were good ideas, but didn’t have a lot of money. The student body wanted to do the right thing and made the investment,” Maurice said.

Guelph students lobbied for the induction of a student fee directed specifically towards energy-conservation projects, while the University vowed to match the funds.

Considerable funding is necessary for universities to acquire the cutting-edge innovation required to achieve greater sustainability. Currently, many Ontario universities rely on the donations of students, alumni, faculty, and in the case of McMaster, loans from Canada’s central bank.

Government funding; however, is not constrained nation-wide.

The University of British Columbia (UBC) used provincial funding to catapult its campus into the front-running of sustainable energy-usage.

According to UBC’s Director of Operational Sustainability, Orion Henderson, BC Hydro introduced irresistible incentives for reducing energy use and adopting energy-conserving practices, right around the time UBC began aiming to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions in the early 2000s.

UBC has since partnered with crown corporation BC Hydro for a program aimed to decrease carbon emissions for the province as a whole.

BC Hydro’s incentives for electricity conservation include subsidies for fully staffing the University’s sustainability office.

As one of BC’s primary energy consumers, UBC spends close to one million dollars on energy each month. Thus, the province as a whole benefits from the vast university campus’ energy conservation. According to Henderson, UBC is progressing steadily towards its sustainability goals.

Its energy savings are tracked by a Pulse Dashboard, located on the UBC website, which provides a real-time measurement of energy savings at various campus buildings. This provides the public with an illustration of the drastic differences that seemingly insignificant actions, such as switching off the lights when leaving the room, can have on a building’s energy consumption.

The Dashboard is being 100 per cent funded by BC Hydro in its four introductory years of use.

According to Henderson, the timing aligned perfectly for UBC when both BC Hydro and the university embraced energy conservation as a top priority.

And yet, despite being a leading institution of environmental sustainability in Canada, UBC has yet to cultivate the widespread awareness that Queen’s is aspiring to in its Climate Action Plan.

“In honesty, I wonder how many people really know about what we do,” Henderson admitted. “We’ve made attempts to create some dialogue, but the vast majority of people are busy doing their own things.”

“We have to be aware that a lot of people don’t support our research.”

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