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As the country’s oldest technical college, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has always strived to be at the forefront of technology and innovation.  We put men on the moon, or just up in a Ferris wheel.  However, RPI has an interesting position on the causes and solutions of anthropogenic global warming.  Here are a few of the topics highlighting the campus’ involvement in energy and the environment.  First, it is beneficial to look at the campus’ financial ties before analyzing on-campus projects.

Short of certain administrative connections, RPI does not seem to be heavily funded by fossil fuel donations, unlike the SUNY Buffalo Shale Resources and Society Institute (SRSI).  “Frackademia,” as it’s called, traded academic integrity for the cheap allure of fossil fuel money.  Unfortunately, such practices are distributed across many college campuses, such as the University of Texas and Penn State.  At the University of Wyoming, an artistic display of coal and climate-damaged trees led to coal and petroleum companies threatening to withdraw millions in donations to the school.  Ironically, the coal project was taken down to “water issues” and money-hungry university officials.  One of the campus buildings is named after steel-giant Andrew Carnegie, but that was from over a century ago.  Rensselaer’s only Nobel Prize winner, Ivar Giaever, is a well-known climate denier, but I do not expect him to donate large amounts of money to the school.  (If you want to watch is amusing rant on climate science and clean energy, click here)  So RPI is severely hampered by fossil interests, but we are certainly lagging behind many other campuses’ renewable energy generation projects.

RPI has made advances in artificial photosynthesis, futuristic solar thermal technology, greening the electrical grid, and transforming the lighting industry.  In fact, the Lighting Research Center at RPI is the world’s largest multidisciplinary center for lighting research and technology.  Notice how all of these initiatives focus on technology and not coordinated efforts to induce change.  This is not by accident.  In addition to shifting the blame of inaction to students, the university has an opportunity to invite more corporate-funded research projects painted as “green” projects. Such an industry-dependent outlook seems eerily similar to that of former president George W. Bush.  Despite rejecting any proposal to regulate carbon dioxide and even outright refusing to open emails from the EPA saying to do so, Bush stated, “The way forward is through technology” to reduce gasoline usage and help the environment.  University officials should instead take the mindset of Bill Clinton and his climate initiatives– “saving the planet is better economics than burning it up.” With NYC residents finally receiving power, hurricane Sandy comes as a blessing and a curse.  Prominent Democrats were forced to report the reality of climate change, and hopefully Rensselaer administrators can follow suit.

Energy usage at Rensselaer could also be vastly improved. On RPI’s sustainability home page, Claude Rounds stated, “with the addition of all these new facilities, we have reduced our overall energy and water consumption per square-foot.”  In other words, the energy usage at RPI has increased.  With a bookstore green-roof, passive heating and cooling biotechnology building, and solar electric ice makers, RPI is no stranger to green building.  However, very little exists in the realm of climate and energy policy and planning on campus.  A recent refreshing of the Rensselaer Plan has a few blurbs about going green and “thrusts” in sustainable food, energy and water, but they were all in the context of student research and not usage on campus.  We used to have solar panels next to the VCC [PICTURED], but they were taken down for aesthetic reasons.  I seemed to forget that a patch of grass is much nicer looking than solar-tracking photovoltaic panels at an engineering school that converted a chapel to a computer center.  These actions have costly consequences.  The new Supercomputer’s location at the RPI Tech Park is rumored to be from its too high of an electrical usage for campus.  Also, an LED retrofit project known as LEDesign is touted as a green project that will save thousands of tons of carbon dioxide, which it will, yet the real reason for funding such a project is basic cost savings.  It is said that a number of efficiency initiatives are the result of RPI using too much electricity, eventually requiring a new $30 million electrical feeder to increase the supply.  In the face of high infrastructure costs, would it not be better to reduce the demand of electricity through sustainable technology than to increase the demand of polluting fossil fuels?

For future action, I recommend a complete overhaul of the green policy on campus.  In addition to incorporating sustainability into vice presidents’ performance plans, a sustainability office would help coordinate the varied projects of students and faculty.  The campus will adopt an energy plan to use at least 80% renewables by 2050, in accordance with the U.S. government’s and the world’s long term energy outlook.  As recommended by the Department of Energy, Students would work with industry professionals to convert the steam generator to combined heat and power (CHP) plant for cheap clean electricity and hot water.  The energy shift would not require too much of a transition, since RPI already purchases five million kilowatt-hours of wind-generated electricity annually.  For funding, a new alumni donation program dedicated to local green projects would surely attract funding and ensure lucrative results.  Rensselaer should follow in the footsteps of colleges across the nation by divesting their endowments from fossil fuel companies to those of renewables and other sustainable businesses.

The “perfect storm” is brewing for sustainability at RPI.  The new Sustainability Studies major was said to be a key factor for the record number of applicants and accepted students, and more current students are asking about green projects on campus.  We have almost two centuries of university knowledge, handful of enthusiastic students, and devoted faculty hope to incorporate environmental sustainability to the core of RPI’s operations.  Hopefully when students utter the oftly-repeated, “why not change the world?” we can have it mean something more than the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere.

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