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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Inputs and outputs
May 17, 2008 - 10:57am

Under the terms of the ACUPCC, Greenback University's greenhouse gas inventory is due in September. The heavy lifting is now done -- we have the numbers in hand. We have reasonable estimates of Greenback's emissions from building operations -- HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning), electric, etc.; operation of the campus fleet; commuting by students, staff and faculty; and GU-paid air travel. Also a couple of other activities, but those are the big ones.

The inventory covers the years 2001 - 2007, as required. The estimates for 2007 are pretty good. As the years get earlier, the quality of the data goes down, especially for commuting and travel emissions. Realistically, there was no way to avoid that. And, for the purposes of this inventory, the decrease in quality isn't critical.

Ah yes, the purposes of this inventory! What are we going to do with this information? What does it mean to us?

The nutshell answer is that the inventory provides a baseline against which Greenback's current and future efforts to reduce (and eventually eliminate) greenhouse gas emissions can be measured. The real answer is a little more complex.

What Greenback's decision makers will use the inventory for is to evaluate proposals to reduce emissions. That means that I need to work with other members of the campus community to develop those proposals. Some student involvement in the process, more staff effort, maybe a bit of interaction with faculty. (That's not a complaint. Faculty have other priorities in the cause of sustainability. See the previous post.) Where the inventory numbers will be useful is in the identification of "targets of opportunity", and in the estimation of the potential of any particular project to reduce emissions.

To help identify those targets, the emissions numbers in the inventory need to be tied to something. A logical, if not a mathematical, correlation needs to be determined, and "sold" as an element of GU's operational culture. More square feet means more HVAC, more electricity. More employees or more students means more commuting. More conferences or more study abroad means more air travel. More maintenance of campus facilities means more use of fleet vehicles. And so on.

I can establish what the correlation is between, for example, square footage and HVAC energy utilization. I can make a case that adding new buildlings -- no matter how "green" those new buildings are -- only adds to HVAC energy utilization. Adding better buildings might bring the average energy used per square foot down a bit, but the total energy utilization will only go up. The message might not be popular with the expansionists on campus, but it's simple and easy to explain. The logic is clear.

But energy to run HVAC and square feet of space are both inputs to the production processes at Greenback. What I'd really like to be able to do is provide some correlation to a measure of the outputs Greenback creates. Some measure of the quantity of education and research that's produced. (Not the quality. Not the content. I'm not feeling quite that suicidal, at the moment!) Some correlation of "energy in" to "education out" which could measure, however crudely, the degree of efficiency with which Greenback is utilizing at least major inputs (other than instructor/researcher hours) to its production processes.

As far as I've been able to determine, Greenback maintains no information which measures output (other than the number and type of degrees granted, by semester). Maybe I'm not asking the right people -- measures of educational output isn't the type of information I've dealt with much, in the past. Or, maybe, the data doesn't exist because the "efficiency" question has been, up until now, considered rather rude(?).

'Tis a puzzlement.


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