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Private, community colleges get greener

Iowa campuses becoming more sustainable

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By Vanessa Miller, The Gazette

Climate change and other environmental concerns are threatening both the quality of life and pocketbooks of Iowans — and the region’s private and community colleges are no exception.

That’s why many schools, including Coe College and Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, have and are continuing to implement a variety of green initiatives — mirroring a national sustainability trend among private colleges and universities.

Coe this summer is embarking on what it calls a “major energy-reduction program” aimed at shrinking the college’s electricity use by 25 percent and its natural gas consumption by nearly 50 percent. The change is expected to result in about $220,000 energy and operational savings each year and cut the college’s carbon footprint in half.

Kirkwood — which is based in Cedar Rapids but has locations across the region, including Iowa City — now has 675,000 square feet of building space that uses geothermal heating and cooling, 27 kilowatts of solar panels, a commingling program that diverts about 80 percent of trash from the landfill, and a wind turbine that offsets about 25 percent of the institution’s electrical consumption.

“The biggest driver we have is just to decrease our costs,” said Tom Kaldenberg, associate vice president of facilities and security for Kirkwood. “But any impact we can have is important because it’s the right thing to do to reduce our carbon footprint and decrease what’s going into the landfill.”

In Decorah, Luther College last year installed the largest solar array in Iowa, helping the college to use solar energy to completely power two buildings that house more than 120 undergraduates.

It also has a wind turbine that supplies a third of the school’s power, and the campus is focusing on food sustainability — erecting a new “high tower” so Luther can grow its own food year-round.

The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities recently reported that a growing number of the nation’s private colleges and universities, such as those in Iowa, are pushing sustainability in hopes of bettering the quality of life for their students and communities and cutting back on bills.

Stanford University in California, for example, has allocated $15 million for capital improvements to its energy-intensive buildings, and the University of Notre Dame expects to save more than $1 million through its energy conservation, according to the national association.

Coe conservation

Coe launched its energy-reduction program after receiving a $3.45 million low-interest loan from the Iowa Economic Development Authority, under its Energy Bank funding program. The loan was the first of its kind given by the authority, and the energy-saving improvements it’s funding are guaranteed, through a 15-year performance contract, to generate the money needed to pay off the loan, said Coe Vice President for Administrative Services Michael White.

“This allows us to have some significant reduction in energy and natural gas use, and it really helps the college with its environmentally sustainability efforts,” White said.

The project aims to retrofit much of the 20-building campus with sustainable technologies, trimming nearly 2,300 metric tons of annual greenhouse house emissions.

Enhancements include redesigning air-distribution systems, adding heating and air conditioning controls to allow for better energy use, making weatherization improvements, and installing high-efficiency lighting, occupancy sensors, and new plumbing fixtures.

Construction began in May to coincide with the end of the spring semester, and work is expected to continue for a year, White said.

Although Coe has a history of sustainability initiatives — such as switching from coal to natural gas to heat the campus and buying energy efficient appliances — White said further work required financing.

“We had reached a point where it was difficult to achieve more without outside resources,” he said.

Thanks to the new loan, Coe is spending more than $400,000 on lighting improvements, as lighting accounts for 30- to 40-percent of the total electrical use in a building.

But officials expect to realize savings quickly, which White said will be helpful if Iowa sees another harsh winter like the last.

“A more efficient campus is better for the environment and helps keep energy costs under control,” White said.

‘New ways to save energy’

Kirkwood is one of a dozen institutions in Iowa to receive an environmental excellence award from the governor’s office thanks to its efficiency efforts through solar panels, geothermal heating and cooling and one of the state’s largest wind turbines.

As it expands its physical footprint across Eastern Iowa with construction of four regional centers, Kirkwood is attempting to keep its carbon footprint small, said Kirkwood Associate Vice President Kaldenberg.

“As we grow and improve and do new buildings, we look at new ways to save energy and be sustainable,” Kaldenberg said.

As with Kirkwood, Luther College uses wind turbines and solar panels to improve energy efficiency. But much of its newer sustainability efforts center around food, said Maren Stumme-Diers, sustainability foods educator at Luther.

The college has three off-campus gardens and four on-campus gardens, and student workers use those grounds to grow some of the food served in the cafeteria.

Luther is putting up a “high tunnel” or “hoophouse” — a heated, movable greenhouse-type structure — that will allow the campus to reap from its gardens all year, Stumme-Diers said.

“In Iowa, it’s really challenging to align the growing season with the academic calendar,” she said. “This will allow our students to grow more food and consume more greens in the cafeteria on a year-found basis.”

The college also offers a Community Supported Agriculture reimbursement program that covers 50 percent of the cost of a CSA share for faculty and staff members up to $100. The shared agriculture programs allow community members to pay local farmers up front for weekly or bi-weekly boxes of produce.

This year, more than 25 percent of Luther employees are taking advantage, and Stumme-Diers said she expects the program will grow.

“It builds community among employees and connects them with more of the food they’re eating,” she said.

The college also is donating uneaten food from its cafeteria twice a week to a local food pantry. And, Stumme-Diers said, Luther this fall is implementing a pilot project to put recycling bins in individual dormitory rooms.

It’s starting with one hall, but it could be expanded, according to Stumme-Diers.

“We want to make recycling more convenient,” she said. “And when difficulties are removed, people are more likely to recycle.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3106; vanessa.miller@sourcemedia.net

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