Virginia Tech Magazine
Virginia Tech

Campus makes sustainability gains


The greenhouse at the Virginia Tech Catawba Sustainability Center
The greenhouse at the Virginia Tech Catawba Sustainability Center
Earlier this year, Virginia Tech received the 2011 Gold Award for Environmental Excellence from Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. For the third time in the past four years, Tech has received kudos from the state government for sustainability and environmental excellence. We also are pleased to see several years of improving and strong scores on the sustainability "report card" issued by the Sustainable Endowments Institute, most recently garnering a "B+."

The university has made steady progress toward goals enumerated in the Virginia Tech Climate Action Commitment and Sustainability Plan adopted in 2009. Improving the environmental stewardship and reducing the carbon footprint of this enterprise—equivalent to a small city—is no small task.

At Virginia Tech, we pride ourselves on student involvement and developing leadership by "doing." The new generation of students is hyper-focused on raising the environmental antennae of the campus community while helping to lighten the environmental footprint of campus operations. Working hand in hand with university administrators, these young Hokies are suggesting, analyzing, and evaluating options. This year, the Office of Energy and Sustainability nurtured 28 student volunteers in unpaid internships, providing hands-on learning, research, and analysis. This is particularly gratifying for me because I helped organize the nation's first Earth Day celebration in 1970.

As I look across the figurative and literal campus landscape, I see many actions, large and small, making an impact. Ranging from complex energy load management programs to the use of energy-efficient light bulbs (thousands of them), the energy use per square foot of building space dropped 10 percent during the past four years. All campus buildings are now built to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Silver standards or higher. But even new buildings create electrical and HVAC demands. How will we support campus expansion in an environmentally and cost-conscious fashion?

The campus food service gets high marks for sustainable operations. [Editor's note: See the article about dining in the spring 2011 issue of Virginia Tech Magazine.] Under our Farms and Fields Project, we buy food from 25 local farms, as well as our own Kentland Farm. Trayless food lines have reduced food waste by about 35 percent in dining halls. Other food scraps and waste are collected by a local firm and converted to compost, diverting as much as 2.5 tons of food waste per week from the local landfill. With so many successes in university dining, The Inn at Virginia Tech is studying possible changes to its program.

While many of you may remember Blacksburg as a rural hamlet, the university's parking and transportation problems are looking more urban. (Montgomery County is now Virginia's second-largest county west of Richmond.) Innovative alternative-transportation solutions notched us one of those Governor's Environmental Excellence Awards and designation as a Best Commuter Workplace by the Environmental Protection Agency. Support for vanpooling; the Smart Way Bus (Roanoke-to-Blacksburg commuters); the Bike, Bus, & Walk program; the U Car Share "instant car rental"; and the university's prescient decision to help create the Blacksburg Transit three decades ago all contribute to reducing automotive impact on southwestern Virginia's sylvan landscape.

With all these successes, hard decisions still remain in our future. As the campus expands, we also must consider future campus-heating solutions—and there are no cheap options. Green is not free. Requiring up-front investments, the return on investment for energy projects is often longterm and hard to calculate. As the world's economies again pick up, commodity and energy prices are trending up for the long haul. Water resources and agricultural operations must be addressed. Looming against this backdrop is the continual erosion of state support, meaning that tuition must fund many modifications.

University operations must become more energy efficient and environmentally sensitive without breaking the bank and without significantly impacting the educational enterprise. Such are the "opportunities" for the 21st-century college president.

• To read about the university's many green initiatives, visit the campus sustainability website.


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Summer 2011
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