Ready your clothespins and turn off the lights because today marks the beginning of the National Campus Energy Challenge. During the month of February, the University of Michigan will be one of many campuses nationwide participating in a competition to have the most energy-efficient student body in the country. The Michigan Student Assembly’s Environmental Issues Commission and the University’s residence hall advisors will be motivating students across campus to change their wasteful ways. Instead of this just being a month of students scrimping and saving, however, the University needs to make the structural changes that will be efficient in the long term.
Change could start at the University’s architectural gem – the Law Quad. The University is in the development stages of adding an academic building and student commons to the Law School, as well as an upgrade to Hutchins Hall and the Cook Legal Research Building. The Environmental Law Society has been challenging the University to improve its renovation plans so that the building can be certified by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Green Building Rating System.
Right now, the University is defending its current construction plans as environmentally friendly. However, if the plans are truly environmentally friendly, the University should go further and ensure that the plans qualify for a LEED certification.
Achieving LEED standards is a goal that is within reach. Students rallied behind the cause for the new Ross School of Business building and C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. As a result, both new buildings anticipate high LEED honors. These buildings, as well as the Dana Building (which already achieved the LEED Gold Standard), stand as beacons of structural environmentalism for other institutions around the country.
Beyond the realm of construction is the issue concerning the University’s energy resources: its current contract with energy-service provider DTE Energy. Currently, the University receives about 45 percent of its energy from its own Central Power Plant and meets the rest of its demand through DTE. The emissions from the natural gas-powered Central Power Plant are far less significant than the carbon released from DTE – whose energy production still relies on coal, and the mix of fuel used in its production is only 1 percent renewable.
Last year, the University spent $64 million on energy from DTE. While this may seem excessive, the University cannot substanially cut down that load. As a large research-oriented institution, it needs energy to power its many labs, classrooms and other campus facilities. However, the University could further pressure DTE into providing a larger percentage of its electricity from renewable resources. As one of DTE’s largest customers, it is in a unique position to use its clout to move DTE toward more renewable energy sources.
So far, the University has shown an admirable commitment to issues of environmental sustainability. It has the responsibility and a unique capacity through its size and resources to bring about changes in both perceptions about renewable energy and its practical level of consumption. The initiative needs to come from all sides.