April 3, 2009

Sustainability Speaker Stresses Individual Responsibility

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“If you ask a typical student where electricity comes from, they [would] say, ‘From the outlet,’” said Lanny Joyce, Cornell University manager of engineering, planning and energy and yesterday’s keynote speaker at “Spirit of Sustainability,” a lunchtime talk in Sage Chapel about Cornell’s energy conservation and sustainability efforts. The first of a month-long series, yesterday’s talk focused on the subtle contributions from all people on Cornell’s campus in order to reduce carbon emissions. Future speakers will address sustainability issues ranging from cutting-edge research to new construction.
Although the full title of yesterday’s talk was “The Urge to Conserve: Why Saving Energy is Everybody’s Business,” Joyce asserted his belief that young people need more education on the matter than others. However, there were no students in the audience, as the solemn atmosphere of Sage Chapel must have proved less than alluring in the light of an unusually sunny afternoon.
In an attempt to improve student literacy concerning sustainability, the student-run environmental organization KyotoNow! is currently pushing an initiative to make taking a class “related to sustainability” a graduation requirement for every Cornell student, according to the KyotoNow! website.
Joyce devoted much of his speech to reminding the audience that the responsibility to reduce carbon usage belongs to individuals as well as the University. Better decisions on the individual level, such as shutting off unused computers and other electronic devices, would contribute to a lower carbon footprint.
When Joyce asked how many people in the audience had noticed efforts to conserve energy in their offices and residences, only a few people raised their hands.
“My hope would be that in another five years all of you would have raised your hands,” Joyce said. “All of us make decisions every day about energy use.”
Joyce also described some of the University’s current power-saving initiatives. New dimmable greenhouse lighting systems would save some of the huge amount of energy that greenhouses consume.
In addition, breakthrough technology plays a large part in contributing to increased efficiency. A typical coal power plant is only 30 percent efficient — out of every three units of power produced, only one actually makes electricity. Cornell will reuse this waste heat by producing electricity and heat together. Researchers will also develop new technologies, like hot dry rock geothermal energy, which taps hot dry rock deep inside the Earth to provide heating.
Joyce also gave a brief overview of the history of sustainability at Cornell. In 2000, the KyotoNow! student movement, which began with a sit-in in then-President Hunter Rawlings’ office, demanded to know the exact amount of greenhouse gas emissions caused by the University, or in scientific terminology, its “carbon footprint.” The University, Joyce recalled, had “no idea,” but it vowed to reduce 1990 carbon emissions by seven percent by 2012.
Last year, the Climate Action Plan went into effect, an initiative striving to completely eliminate carbon emissions. But Joyce pointed out that striving for a carbon-neutral future leads to new challenges, both mental and practical. Thinking more creatively will prove critical in the search for long-term energy efficiency, but when exactly Cornell reaches its goal “depends entirely on how the University can fund such efforts.”
“This isn’t something that could be achieved in a 10 to 15-year time frame,” Joyce pointed out. “It takes time.” He estimated, however, that Cornell could eliminate its carbon footprint by 2050 or 2060, given enough funds.[img_assist|nid=36531|title=Opening remarks|desc=Cornell Executive Vice President Steve Golding addresses the audience in Sage Chapel during Spirit of Sustainability Lunch Series event yesterday.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
The speaker who delivered opening remarks, Steve Golding, Cornell’s executive vice president for finance and management, also emphasized the long-term nature of the project. “It takes time,” he noted, “especially for an institution like Cornell.”
Both he and Joyce underlined the progress Cornell has made so far in recasting sustainability as a major priority.
“Today a lot of things we were focusing on in the 70s are really front and center,” Joyce recalled. Growing up in such a turbulent era provided Joyce with a firsthand look at the growing energy crisis. When Joyce was a high school senior in Toledo, Ohio, his school canceled classes from January to March because of a lack of natural gas.
Such events encouraged Joyce’s growing interest in helping the environment. After spending his undergraduate years as an engineering student at Cornell, he worked in the refrigeration industry before returning to Cornell. His academic background and interest in sustainability issues quickly moved him to work on making the utility system more efficient. In 1981, he helped repower a hydroplant that had not been used since Ezra Cornell was University President in the 1900s. This hydroplant now accounts for two percent of the University’s power.
Joyce concluded by encouraging engineering students to take part in research efforts after they graduate.
“I’d like to give students the definition of an engineer as a person who uses science and technology to solve society’s problems,” he said.