Race to the Bottom: Universities Take the Lead in Carbon Reduction

Event: Getting to 30%: Carbon Reduction Success Stories from NYC’s Mayoral Challenge
Location: Center for Architecture, 10.18.10
Speakers: Laurie Kerr — Senior Policy Advisor, Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability; Thomas Goldsmith — Director of Environment & Energy Conservation, & Bernadette Lavin — Executive Director of Conference & Auxiliary Services, St. John’s University; Andy Ryan — Senior Director of Engineering and Maintenance, Weill Cornell Medical College; Cecil Scheib — Director of Energy and Sustainability, New York University; Natale DiDonato — Director of Energy Services, Luthin Associates, Inc.
Organizer: AIANY Committee on the Environment

In 2007, as part of PlaNYC, Mayor Bloomberg challenged the city’s universities to reduce carbon emissions 30% by 2030. Seventeen schools have answered the call so far.

From St. John’s University, Thomas Goldsmith and Bernadette Lavin discussed the importance of operations and finance working together. St. John’s has currently achieved a 14% reduction through building management systems (BMS), energy-efficient construction, lighting retrofits, and water-saving measures. But those initiatives were only possible because of a detailed Management & Verification plan, which accurately predicted future savings and allowed the university to secure a loan.

“A lot of the things we’ve done so far to save energy are not pure rocket science,” said Andy Ryan from Weill Cornell Medical College. “They are basic things that could be done in any new building or any renovation project.” But at Weill Cornell, those basic things — BMS, exhaust heat recovery, variable-speed fans — are crucial, because medical and lab facilities are so energy-intensive. Ryan also noted that the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), helped provide funding for all of the universities represented on the panel.

More than the technical or financial aspects, New York University’s Cecil Scheib emphasized the social implications of green initiatives. “Learning to save energy is not only about building operators or the architects having a plan,” he said. “For a building to be a living organism, it has to have users realize what’s going on. They play a part.” He said that because NYU students clearly understand how energy usage affects operating costs — i.e. tuition — they are willing to support initiatives even when it requires some adjustments to their habits.

In the end, said Natale DiDonato of Luthin Associates, the mayor’s challenge only catalyzed carbon-reducing initiatives that were already beginning to develop. “The motivation is coming from a lot of different directions,” he said: “Competing for students, looking good compared to the other universities, and you’ve got all these engineers waiting in the wings to get some new toys… So the mayor’s challenge, from that standpoint, really gave everybody some focus.”