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UCSD Aims to Become Greenest University in the Nation

By Ioana Patringenaru | April 7, 2008

Solar power panels will cover 26 buildings on campus. Fuel cells and wind farms will help power dorms, labs and cafeterias. UC San Diego is aiming to become the leading user of renewable energy among U.S. universities within the next few years and unveiled Thursday several steps the campus will take to reach that goal.

Chancellor Marye Anne Fox (Photo / Victor W. Chen)
Chancellor Marye Anne Fox speaks during a press conference on sustainability Thursday.
Video Icon Click here to watch a video of the press conference (Windows Media Player required)

A wide range of collaborative efforts by faculty, students and administrators have already helped create a campus dedicated to environmental sustainability, Chancellor Marye Anne Fox said. Now, the university plans to generate 10 to 15 percent of its annual electrical needs from renewable power sources, including solar panels, wind farms and fuel cells.

“Our changing climate and especially global warming is a growing problem that needs to be addressed now,” Fox said during a press conference Thursday at the Faculty Club. “We need to ensure a sustainable future, for our community, our nation and our planet.”

During the event, Fox and other top administrators outlined research initiatives and their practical applications that they said make UCSD one of the leading green campuses in the nation. UCSD, Fox pointed out, is a living laboratory for climate solutions.

Officials also said they were proud to be on a campus that took concrete steps in the fight for sustainability and against global warming. “Our campus has really come together to actually do something about this problem,” said Tony Haymet, vice chancellor of marine sciences and director of UCSD’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Producing power from alternative sources

Gary Matthews, vice chancellor of resource management and planning, announced that the university signed a contract with investors last month to build one megawatt worth of photovoltaic solar arrays atop campus buildings and parking structures. The solar panels will pop up starting in May on campus roofs, including RIMAC, the Price Center and the Hopkins and Gilman parking structures. Another megawatt of solar capacity will be added sometime within the next year. The university will purchase the energy they produce at a negotiated price.

Gary Matthews (Photo / Victor W. Chen)
Vice Chancellor Gary Matthews poses with a solar panel and flasks of biofuel derived from algae.

In addition, the campus aims to produce 2.4 megawatts from fuel cells powered by renewable methane and by using methane at its co-generation plant. The methane fuel will be transported to UCSD from the Point Loma sewage treatment plant, where it is produced. The fuel is currently lost by flaring at the plant. “It’s a very rewarding approach,” said Vice Chancellor Matthews. “We’re taking something that’s truly being wasted and turning it into energy for the campus’ needs.” Like the solar arrays on campus rooftops, these fuel-cell electricity generators will be built and operated through third-party funding arrangements.

The university also is set to purchase up to three megawatts of electrical power produced by Southern California wind farms. In all, 7.4 megawatts of the energy used on campus will come from renewable power. These alternative sources, Matthews said, will generate enough electricity to power 2100 homes a year and at the same time keep out of the atmosphere 10,000 tons of CO2—the equivalent of keeping about 1500 cars a year off the road.

“One of the hallmarks of UC San Diego has been its discoveries and its inventions,” Matthews said. “We’ve taken these discoveries and we’ve started to plant them in our own back yard.”

Using alternative sources of fuel

UCSD’s focus on alternative energy doesn’t stop with power for its buildings. It already extends to university shuttles. The vehicles have been using fuels that include 20 percent of biofuels for more than a year.

Steve Kay (Photo / Victor W. Chen)
Steven Kay, the dean of Biological Sciences, shows off a flask of algae.

Also, a student group, the Biofuels Action and Awareness Network, is working to promote the use of biofuels in the UCSD community. One of the organization’s projects, called Greenline, aims to get a campus shuttle bus to run on 100 percent biodiesel. Faculty from engineering and social sciences have joined the effort, as have Vice Chancellor Matthews, the campus’ fleet manager, Jim Ruby, and the office of corporate relations. The bus is set to start running this summer between the main campus and the UCSD Medical Center in Hillcrest. It will use regular fuels blended with biofuels, switching gradually to biofuels only.

Algae and several plants are other potential sources of biofuels, said Steven Kay, the campus’ dean of Biological Sciences. Ethanol is not a sustainable solution because corn requires large amounts of fertilizer and water to grow, he said.  So, UCSD researchers are working today on turning what Kay jokingly called “pond scum” into tomorrow’s clean fuels. Biologists are working with Scripps researchers to find algae that can be grown on a large scale on land that can’t be used for crops, Kay also said.

“It’s going to be a dramatic change in the way that we can impact greenhouse gas emissions from transportation fuels,” he said. “Biologists can save the world,” he added later.

Other initiatives

Paul Linden (Photo / Victor W. Chen)
Paul Linden, head of the campus' Environment and Sustainability Initiative, with a micro weather station.

Other efforts include the campuswide Environment and Sustainability Initiative, which aims to harness the campus’ intellectual resources and focus them on the challenges of sustainability. For example, the campus is developing a state-of-the-art micro weather station network to better manage its energy needs. The initiative also recently organized a sustainability forum attended by 190 business and government leaders. “We see this as a major challenge to our intellectual resources,” said Paul Linden, the initiative’s director and chair of mechanical and aerospace engineering.

Meanwhile, the Birch Aquarium offers programs to educate children and adults about climate change. By the end of this year, the aquarium will draw about 10 percent of its power from the sun, Vice Chancellor Haymet said. The Scripps Institution also has been rolling out a full slate of undergraduate courses about the environment and the earth. The campus celebrated last week the 50th anniversary of the Keeling Curve, which was the first to point to man’s influence on climate, Haymet pointed out.

“It’s what we do in the next 50 years that will determine whether we honor that legacy and that great scientific discovery,” he said.

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