By Scott Walker
Over the past six years I have been striving to find the right balance point between our industry’s response to the global climate change mess we are inheriting/propagating and the present-day needs of our industry to stay viable and add value to our customers amidst a technological sea change that is breathtaking, in and of itself. While “being green” speaks to my soul, “making green” speaks to my family, employees, mortgage company, banker, etc. Everyone once in a while the whole “being” thing and “making” thing come together. When it does, it can be jaw dropping.
Earlier this month I was honored to give a keynote address for the Consortium of College and University Media Centers (CCUMC) Conference 2012. I had spoken at this conference back in 2008 on the topic of green AV, and as I told my audience, it was great to get a do-over and inform the attendees that my 2008 message, while well-intentioned, was dead wrong. As it turned out, LEED was not our pathway to sustainable technology as I prophesied in 2008, and thus we created STEP as our answer to the gaping building technology chasm in every green building rating system out there.
However, in the course of preparing my recent presentation I had a series of epiphanies, which I should probably keep to myself for selfish business reasons, but I feel compelled to share them for the greater good of the sustainable technology movement.
As I reviewed my 2008 slides and waded through the 33 slides dedicated to LEED, I came across one slide on another green program that had started in 2007: the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment. This initiative is a voluntary program wherein college and university presidents sign a commitment to take their institutions to carbon neutrality through a series of progressive and meaningful steps. When I first researched the ACUPCC back in 2008, I was intrigued by the structure of the commitment, particularly the requirement for signatories to publish a complete carbon inventory for their entire campus and produce their climate-neutrality action plan within two years of signing the commitment. I mused at the time that once people had to actually undertake this difficult work the whole program might devolve into just another exercise in green washing.
Boy was I wrong! (Again.)
In preparing my 2012 talk I thought I would see how many of the nearly 100 institutions in attendance had signed the commitment. Among the 660 total institutions who have signed the commitment, more than half of my audience worked at colleges and universities where their president had signed on the dotted line that they would go carbon neutral. That was encouraging enough, but I thought I would delve a little deeper. So, not fully realizing what I was getting myself into, I clicked on a link on the ACUPCC homepage that goes to the carbon inventories and climate action plans of each signatory. In short – oh, my God!
I ended up spending about two days on my front porch with my laptop reading dozens of carbon inventories and climate action plans (I’m not right in the head). The information contained in these reports is nothing short of stunning. First of all, the amount of work and attention to detail that went into most of the carbon inventories is amazing, and I came away with the clear understanding that these institutions are serious about this commitment. Some institutions have created online dashboards that show the energy consumption per building in real time. Arizona State University has a cool building metabolism portal that highlights the efficiency of all of its buildings as if they are biological entities.
Then, as I got into the action plans, I saw the variety of approaches these institutions are employing to get to carbon neutrality. Each report has some version of a chart like the one below that shows their energy consumption if they follow a “business as usual” approach to the future verses a carbon-neutral approach.
Some institutions have very aggressive schedules that get them to carbon neutrality within the decade. Others — and I really had to admire the optimism in this — show a carbon-neutral date of 2099. (You just gotta love academics. Not only did these institutions firmly believe they were still going to be around in 2099, they also imagined that 86 years from now they’d be really, really close to hitting their climate-action goal. I just had to smile at that.)
Most institutions employed a mix of strategies to meet their climate-action goal but their plans all end with a statement that basically says, “…and then we’ll buy a huge amount of carbon offsets to make up the rest the gap.” That brought me to Epiphany #1: Why would they want to buy one more pound of carbon offsets than necessary when our industry can probably help them squeeze more efficiency out of their buildings through STEP and smart building technologies? It just doesn’t make any sense to stop short of true energy efficiency based on a lack of understanding about what a smart building approach could do for them. Nearly all signatories pledge to make all new construction LEED Silver or higher. What if we could convince them to go LEED Silver and STEP Silver or higher on all their future buildings? In the words of the immortal Wayne Campbell, “Shwing!”
Then I started angling toward Epiphany #2: I got curious/selfish to see how many Waveguide clients were among the 660 signatories. I was pleased to see that we had 40 current clients on the list. Forty! Furthermore, I counted about 20 more signatory institutions we had courted but hadn’t yet landed as clients. Then it hit me: We’ve never talked to any of these clients or potential clients about how we can help them with their carbon neutrality plans. And among the many big ironies here is the additional fact that most of the architecture firms we work with in our higher education practice have signed the Architecture 2030 Challenge to make all of the buildings they design net zero energy buildings by 2030.
Uhhhh, dur! Why don’t I call these institutions and architects and talk to them about how STEP and smart building technologies can help fulfill both of their commitments? Why don’t we help our AV/IT customers at these institutions improve their value proposition to their employer by helping them produce a carbon inventory for their institution’s classroom technologies? The truth is in all the climate action plans I read there is too little attention paid to the role that technologies like distance learning and streaming media can play in reducing the carbon footprint of these institutions. Given the backdrop of the skyrocketing cost of higher education, as well as the growing threat to bricks-and-mortar campuses from initiatives like Coursera and EdX (that’s a whole article in itself), the only way most higher education institutions are going to make it to 2099 is to fully embrace the digital campus. The good news is that staying viable by delivering their courses digitally also helps their climate action plans: the proverbial “win-win.”
So, I figure if I start this week and call one ACUPCC university and one 2030 Challenge architect a week, it’ll take me more than a year to get to all of them.
Scott Walker, CTS-D, LEED® AP, is president and CEO of Waveguide Consulting, a leading AV, IT and acoustical consulting firm. He is also a past president of InfoComm International. Scott is recognized as being one of the primary forces behind the founding of the Sustainable Technology Environments Program (STEP) rating system and currently is a member of the STEP Foundation board, which is responsible for managing the STEP program. Scott can be reached at email@example.com