Progress Report: University of Iowa’s 2020 vision

CENES OF EARLY I.C. Late 19th-century Clinton Street, Downtown Iowa City.
Late 19th-century Clinton Street, Downtown Iowa City.

How exactly do you turn a campus of 30,000 students into a model of environmental sustainability? With seven key targets, The University of Iowa Office of Sustainability is working hard to achieve that goal.

In October 2010, UI President Sally Mason signed the EPA Sustainability Partnership Program Agreement, which laid out distinct goals for the University’s green-friendly future. From limiting the production of waste to working to achieve net-negative energy growth, the ambitious goals are being watched and practiced with an end goal of full implementation by Dec. 31, 2020.

Liz Christiansen, director of the University’s Office of Sustainability, said the goals are designed to “take the university and campus to new levels.”

“If you go to any university the size of The University of Iowa, and smaller schools here in Iowa–we’ve come to the recognition that not only are we seeing energy costs increase, but there’s also a recognition that our planet and our people and our economy suffers,” Christiansen says.

So how does the University ensure a green-friendly future, and what progress has been made toward these goals in the last three years? We did some digging and found some evidence of progress, although the U will likely need all ten years to get where they say they want to go.

Goal 1: Achieve Net-negative Energy Growth

This goal focuses on structure and building energy. The University of Iowa is pushing to build LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) buildings and also employ conservation efforts on campus.

So far, this goal has been a success. Christiansen said that despite the University adding six new buildings to its campus along with two major additions to the Dental Science Building and Carver Hawkeye Arena, the total energy consumption of the campus has remained level.

“Students gain experience conducting trials of the Energy Control Center and the UI Water Plant.”

Meanwhile, facilities management has initiated new tools, such as the Energy Control Center where some of the most advanced energy management technology allows centralized monitoring of energy consumption across campus. Additionally, new groups like the Energy Hawks have sprung up around campus to address energy consumption.

Goal 2: Green the Energy Portfolio

This goal was set to develop a diverse renewable fuel portfolio that aims to have 40 percent of the University’s energy consumed from renewable sources by 2020. As of 2012, Christiansen said, renewable energy consumption was 9 percent.

“The university is pursuing plans to expand the use of sustainable biomass while continuing to evaluate other opportunities such as wind and solar,” Christiansen said. Partnerships have helped in this goal, including the Iowa Biomass Planning Partnership.

The University has also partnered with the county in an effort to achieve this goal. “Recently, the University of Iowa and Johnson County Conservation Board completed a harvest of dead and dying non-native trees at Kent Pak, with the plan to use the trees as fuels at the UI Main Power Plant,” Christiansen said.

With help from the UI Facilities Management’s recycling team, waste audits around campus help track what waste is being created and how it could potentially be avoided.

Goal 3: Decrease the Production of Waste

With a push toward recycling, composting organic waste and enhancing green purchase practices, the UI hopes to see a 60 percent reduction in waste by 2020.

Subscribe to LV Daily for community news, events, photos and more in your inbox every weekday afternoon.

“The first step toward better waste management is to learn about what’s actually ending up in the waste stream,” Christiansen said.

With help from the UI Facilities Management’s recycling team, waste audits around campus help track what waste is being created and how it could potentially be avoided. One example of waste that has been identified and is now being recycled, Christiansen said, is the lab gowns used by the UI College of Dentistry. Another example includes reusing the materials from the Hancher Auditorium demolition and construction site and repurposing them in the new Hancher construction. Meanwhile, campus dining in Burge Hall is using a new food pulper to create compost, currently sending out around 2,800 pounds of food waste every single week.

“Waste in a system is a sign of inefficiency. Driving out waste–whether it’s in the form of garbage or water, emissions, time, materials–makes good business sense,” Christiansen said.

Goal 4: Reduce the Carbon Impact on Transportation

It’s a typical scene–students packed like sardines on the UI’s Cambus, heading to class, home from class or out for the evening. From the Cambus to university-related air travel, the goal for all forms of transportation is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 10 percent by 2020.

With the use of fossil fuels and an increase of bio-diesel and E85 ethanol gasoline, CO2 emissions dropped 27 percent within the UI fleet over the previous decade. Christiansen said over 52 percent of the vehicles managed by the UI Fleet Services are currently either fueled by E85, hybrid or fully electric vehicles.

To encourage ridership on busses, the University offers discounted passes that average 1,600 employees and 2,100 students. Christiansen says, “The passes provide unlimited rides on Iowa City or Coralville Transit.”

The smartphone application Bongo is another great way that the University in partnership with the cities of Iowa City and Coralville are trying to encourage citizens to use public transportation. As a real-time, GPS-based passenger information system, it allows riders to find current bus locations and predictions for upcoming arrivals to Iowa City, Coralville and the University of Iowa.

The University is also making efforts to make the campus more bikeable. They worked with the City to update the metro bike plan, and they have also installed two bike repair stations, says Christiansen. She adds, “UI received an “honorable mention” from the League of American Cyclists as a Bike Friendly University and the UI Bike Advisory Committee is helping to coordinate additional biking support services on campus.”

At the end of the day, however, it all comes down to bettering the environment we live in.

Goal 5: Increase Student Opportunities to Learn and Practice Principles of Sustainability

Besides its emphasis on public transportation, support of bicyclists and encouragement of recycling, the UI created the Certificate in Sustainability in fall 2009 to inspire more green-friendly careers. Christiansen said that the program started with only 11 students, but as of spring 2012, had grown to 145 students. According to Christiansen, “The certificate provides students with the knowledge and skills they will need in order to contribute to sustainable systems and their interactions.”

Goal 6: Support and Grow Interdisciplinary Research in Sustainability-Focused Areas

Going green is more than just the responsibility of the energy and waste management facilities or the Office of Sustainability. Through the Iowa Center for Undergraduate Research, students from engineering, business and planning are utilized by various campus departments as research interns.

“Students gain experience conducting trials of the Energy Control Center and the UI Water Plant,” Christiansen said, adding that students also work with the College of Engineering to help build stable wind and solar installations, as well as biomass testing and water quality projects. Campus institutes devoted to such research include The Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research and the IIHR Hydroscience and Engineering center.

Goal 7. Develop Partnerships to Advance Collaborative Initiatives, both Academic and Professional

Partnerships abound, and the University continues to make growing relationships to advance the 2020 vision for sustainability. The School of Urban and Regional Planning launched an initiative in 2009 to help enhance sustainability practices throughout towns and communities in Iowa to better preserve the environment. The UI College of Engineering has partnered with Iowa Lakes Community College to allow easy transferring of students and credits, particularly for the advancement of wind energy.

What lies ahead…

“They’re ambitious targets,” Christiansen said, “and we need partners. The University of Iowa is very much about collaboration.”

Christiansen said that not only are students taking part in green energy through various programs and campus institutes, but she has seen a piquing interest in local food sources. “Students want to a have a connection with local foods, the natural world and entrepreneurs. They can start their own businesses, they can partner with existing producers and go on and build their own company,” she said.

At the end of the day, however, it all comes down to bettering the environment we live in. “Any university, or any school, is about educating the next generation of thinkers and entrepreneurs,” Christiansen said. “It’s imperative that we teach young people about sustainability and how to solve these major issues that are facing our planet. We can do that by modeling a sustainable world.”

Photos by Ben Handler

Erin Tiesman is a local freelance writer and comedy blogger who loves a good joke and a laugh. You can see what’s up in Iowa’s comedy scene at her blog,