Good, but not enough

Feb 282008
Authors: Larry Edward Penley President Colorado State University

Larry Edward Penley

President, Colorado State University

An estimated 1.6 million people die each year from health problems brought on by toxic air in their homes as they cook over primitive stoves and open pit fires. Millions more suffer health problems and even death from vehicle exhaust or tainted water.

And yet, too many of us in higher education are focused on changing out light bulbs in campus buildings, when we should be focused on engineering a better light bulb – and educating the knowledge leaders who will invent a replacement for the light bulb.

As the Collegian reported recently, universities across the country are in the process of considering whether to sign the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, which commits institutions to making their campuses “climate neutral” through investments in infrastructure and operations.

CSU is reviewing the pros and cons of signing on. But even with the best intentions, such pledges often generate positive public relations and little more. CSU, as one of the nation’s leading “green” universities, has the responsibility, the capacity and the opportunity to do much more.

Do not misunderstand: Campus sustainability efforts are important. In fact, CSU was a leader in campus-based “green” efforts long before it was popular. Some highlights:

The university’s steam turbine generator reduces CO2 emissions by more than 5.2 million pounds a year.

Since 1990, water use on campus has decreased 22 percent, or 180 million gallons.

Our Forest Service nursery produces 2 million seedling trees each year, reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

CSU was one of the first universities to offer on-campus residents the option to purchase wind power.

Used cooking oil from our dining centers is collected and recycled to create biodiesel.

A wetland we’ve constructed on CSU grounds removes pollutants and sediments from water that drains from the university Greenhouse.

Vending machines are designed to be energy efficient, decreasing carbon dioxide emissions by more than 230,000 pounds per year.

Housing has been charged with eliminating all Styrofoam and plastic bags from our dining centers by fall 2008.

CSU is launching a wind farm that will make us the first university in the country to produce more energy than it consumes.

I have ordered that all future new buildings follow the example of the Transit Center and Academic Village and meet LEED Gold standards.

These efforts are important, but they won’t have the global impact needed to make a real difference throughout the world.

Our nation’s research universities have, within their reach, the power to change lives for the better — through education of a “green collar” workforce and development of groundbreaking research solutions deployed through market-based enterprises.

No university is in a better position to lead this change than Colorado State.

CSU was green before green was trendy, and has been home to world leaders in environmental science for decades. Our scientists built the world’s first engineered solar-heated and cooled building. We created the nation’s first emissions control center. Our faculty led the most prominent, independent engines research labora/tory in North America. And these are only a few examples – an initial summary compiled by my office was more than 32 pages long.

But today’s raised national consciousness creates an environment conducive to expanding these efforts.

For that reason, CSU has adopted a clear philosophy: Take great research ideas, narrowly focus in specific areas – such as the problem of carbon-emitting two-stroke engines in Asia – and move them rapidly into the marketplace.

Envirofit International, a CSU spinoff company, provides a powerful example: It is developing what the New York Times calls “the first market-based model for clean-burning wood stove technology” for application in the developing world and has built a corporate infrastructure to support this model.

AVA Solar, a spinoff of Professor W.S. Sampath’s work, is about to begin mass production of solar panels that could cost roughly the same as power from the traditional electrical grid.

These projects represent just a few of the ways CSU is addressing environmental challenges beyond our campus, and undergraduate and graduate students are involved in each one.

While we have an obligation to be environmentally responsible in the way we run our campus, our greater challenge is to educate tomorrow’s green workforce and focus our enormous capacity in support of more of these enterprise-based solutions that will truly make a global difference.

Larry Edward Penley is the president of Colorado State University. Letters and feedback can be sent to

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