June 20, 2014
Falls of the James Sierra Club tours VCU’s sustainability efforts
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Despite steady rain, more than a dozen eager members of the local Falls of the James chapter of the Sierra Club recently spent their monthly meeting touring sustainability initiatives around Virginia Commonwealth University’s campus. Led by Steven Heinitz, sustainability program coordinator in the Office of Sustainability, and Erin Stanforth, the university’s new director of sustainability, the group traversed rooftops and gardens to learn about the large- and small-scale efforts VCU is undertaking to reduce its carbon footprint.
“VCU, like any organization, is trying to move forward,” Heinitz said. “It’s challenging at times between budgets and different priorities – it’s not as easy as we would like it to be – but we are moving forward and we are taking steps to make the university greener in terms of how we use our energy to heat, cool and light our buildings.”
Representatives from the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club were also present.
“We’re just really impressed by the renewable energy and efficiency programs the university has embarked upon and are glad to see the commitment to reducing the school’s carbon footprint,” said Kate Addleson, program manager for the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club. “It’s one example here in Virginia that we’re hoping state lawmakers will look to as they’re developing plans to meet the new carbon standards that the EPA is setting.”
The first stop on the tour was on top of Shafer Court Dining Hall where a 750-gallon solar thermal system provides hot water to Dining Operations, offsetting as much as 40 percent of the natural gas that would normally be used to heat the water.
The group then trekked to the Pollak Building rooftop garden. Established in 2011, this green roof is an educational asset crafted with local, salvaged materials that display three different types of sustainable planting strategies. It also works to cool the building, reduces stormwater runoff and provides an urban wildlife sanctuary for insects and birds.
“It’s revolutionary to find a lush garden in an unexpected context,” said John Zeugner, co-chair of the Falls of the James. “Since we are working to preserve pollinators and their habitats, finding an insect- and bird-attracting microcosm six stories above the ground was amazing.”
The Pollak Wind Turbine, installed in spring 2012, was also on display to the rooftop garden visitors. This 16-foot twisted metal structure is capable of producing enough energy to offset 10 100-watt light bulbs turned on for an hour. While this may not seem like a large effect, the turbine also acts as a data collector for determining where and how other turbines on campus might be feasible.
The next stop on the tour led to the bike Mobility Hub along the south wall of James Branch Cabell Library. Here, faculty, staff and students are able to check out bicycles, just like they might a book, for seamless door-to-door trips and errand running. In March 2012, the League of American Bicyclists recognized VCU as a silver level “bicycle friendly university,” making it one of the top 17 in the nation and the highest ranked in Virginia.
From there the tour led through Monroe Park to the southeast corner of the School of Engineering West Hall, to view the Solar PV Dual Axis Tracker. This solar panel is part of a three-panel array around campus that results in an annual energy saving of 24,000 kWh and a greenhouse gas reduction of 45 Metric Tons of Carbon Dioxide Equivalent (MTCDE). To put that amount in perspective, that much CO2 would be roughly the size of Founders Hall.
The final stop on the tour was atop the West Broad Street parking deck to see the solar panel array – one of the largest university arrays in Virginia. Each year it saves 200,000 kWh and an annual greenhouse gas reduction of 115 MTCDE, or in other words, a CO2 mass the current size of the James Branch Cabell Library.
“The public needs to understand that these green energy generators should be the new normal and investments like these make sense today, economically and environmentally,” Zeugner said.
All in all Stanforth said, “The tour went well, although it was quite wet. It rained nearly the entire tour, but spirits were kept high.”
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