With a plan for carbon neutrality by 2020, American University is a leader in green power and sustainability. Director of Sustainability Chris O’Brien says this spring, the university will install the largest solar photovoltaic arrays in the Washington area and the largest urban solar hot water system on the East Coast. Plus, used cooking oil from the school’s food court will be used to power—you guessed it, the food court.
American was one of the first universities in the country to earn a gold rating from STARS (Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System), developed for colleges and universities to gauge relative progress toward sustainability.
I spoke with O’Brien recently and found out why he thinks bottled water is “an environmental, social and economic catastrophe.” Excerpts of our conversation are below.
I understand you’re installing the largest urban solar hot water system on the East Coast.
That’s what we’re being told by the EPA.
Why aren’t they being used more outside the home?
Skyline Innovations, based in D.C., is a small start-up. Part of what makes it possible in D.C. is that there’s a confluence of incentives right now, such as policy that’s enabling the large-scale roll-out of solar power in the District. As a nonprofit, we’re unable to access those tax incentives, but for-profit partners are able to take advantage of those. So Skyline Innovations are able to accrue the tax benefits. There’s a mandate for renewable energy in D.C. And what we get as a customer is cheaper energy from a renewable source.
How much hot water will it supply?
This becomes an engineering question, but they’re designed to produce about 70 percent of the hot water needed in each building. The lion’s share of the solar thermal will be in a group of our residence halls. They’re the largest consumers of hot water on campus.
What else is going on at American?
At the same time, we’re putting in the largest photovoltaic electric system in Washington. Both that and the solar hot water system will be on the same building and will be integrated into a green roof.
Which campus building is this?
The Mary Graydon Center—what a lot of campuses would call the student union.
We recently become the first university in the country to purchase a Vegawatt—a device that is designed to take the waste cooking oil from our dining hall and convert it to electricity and hot water that’s used in that building. We’re now finalizing the installation.
It’s 10 kilowatts. We’ve estimated it will produce about the amount of electricity and hot water needed to power the food court we have in our building.
At the same time, we’re in final design stages of installing a wind turbine that will be the first of its kind in the country. It was designed by an adjunct professor, Terry Sankar. It will go on the parking garage of that building. Visually, this wind turbine is really cool. It’s meant as a demonstration. We don’t know how well it will perform. If it performs well, we have the opportunity to install more of them.
Is there a benefit to having all the systems on the same building?
It means this building will be getting close to net zero emissions. We’ll be replacing the dirty power from the electric grid. And instead of using natural gas to heat the water, we’ll be using the sun and waste vegetable oil.
To me, one of the benefits of having so many systems is that it mirrors the way nature works. When one thing goes wrong, all the other components help balance it out. A problem we face with industrial civilization is that when something goes wrong and a system fails, we’re all scrambling. Here, when the electric grid goes down, we all lose power. But in our case, if we have wind power, solar power, waste vegetable oil power, there’s resiliency there.
What kind of campus messaging is planned around the roll-outs of these green systems?
We launched the Green Eagle program last fall; we hire students in my office to serve as sustainability peer educators. We meet with them once a week and then send them out to train their friends and classmates. We feel like this is one of the great issues of the times. We want our students to leave American University having understood global sustainability issues. But also, students generate ideas. We’re creating a formalized system for that too, with a fund for projects that students and faculty propose.
When you’re educating students and faculty about making the campus more sustainable, what are some of the issues and misconceptions that come up?
Most sustainability projects are invisible—it’s water not consumed, waste not created, electricity not consumed. Those are hard to visualize, because they are things you’re not doing. Whereas solar panels are highly visual and tell a great story. But a great deal of our impact is from not doing things.
We’re 100 percent wind-powered. We’re the third largest campus in the country to be 100 percent wind-powered. But you can't see it because it’s not a wind turbine on campus. It’s a wind farm in North Dakota. We purchase it through the market.
So there’s two challenges—visibility and helping people understand the relative impact of certain things. Recycling bins are highly visible, but in terms of our footprint, all the waste is responsible for less than 1 percent of our greenhouse gases. Yet if there’s a missing recycling bin in the corner of a classroom, we hear about it. Meanwhile, 50 percent of our greenhouses gases are from the electricity we consume, which is why buying 100 percent wind power has already cut our greenhouse gases by 50 percent.
Another challenge is to motivate people to take personal responsibility: If you’re concerned there’s not a recycling bin within arm’s reach, walk a few more arm lengths and put it in the right bin.
Are you seeing trends with students and bottled water?
Absolutely. There are at least three groups on campus doing blind taste tests with water. We just did one –water from water fountain; from an inline filter (which looks like water cooler but without the jug); Deer Park water; and Dasani. In our test, there was almost no correlation with the responses. In other words, they all taste the same.
As far as I’m concerned, bottled water is an environmental, social and economic catastrophe. We’re being duped by bottled water companies. They’re taking our money, they’re not transparent, and they’re privatizing a basic human right—to clean safe water.
Retail bottled water costs 900 times more than water from the tap, and there’s no guarantee of the quality of the water in the bottle. We know exactly what is in our tap water. We don’t know what’s in bottled water because the companies aren’t required to test it or report it. In the meantime, it takes three bottles of water to produce one bottle of water. It also is packaged in a petroleum product—plastic bottles.
We’re making an effort to make tap water and water from water fountains more appealing and to market the message that this is safe, extremely low-cost and debatably higher quality than what you’re paying for in bottles. D.C. water is filtered seven times. Tap water is the original filtered water.