University sustainabilityTexas universities and colleges have been in the news lately because of assorted developments related to cleaner energy, energy conservation and associated subjects.

Taken together, they suggest that interest in sustainability concerns – particularly regarding energy – is becoming a more prominent, more routine part of the higher-education experience in a state where fossil fuels still famously reign.

Here’s a sampling.

“Renewable” branding for the fans

Alums and other supporters of both the Longhorns and Aggies now have the opportunity to help programs at the University of Texas and Texas A&M while they simultaneously boost the state’s renewable energy industries.

Athletic programs at the two universities both recently entered agreements that will market electricity from renewable sources to residential and business customers in parts of the state with deregulated power markets.

Both programs involve partnerships with the same pair of companies – Dallas-based Branded Retail Energy and Houston-based Champion Energy Services. The plans are being marketed via the Texas Longhorns Energy and Aggie Energy brands.

Customers could start signing up for Texas Longhorns Energy (“the official electricity sponsor of UT Athletics”) last week. Buyers can start registering for Aggie Energy on Sept. 3.

Shane Hinckley, A&M’s assistant vice president for business development, told the Bryan-College Station Eagle last month that the Aggie Energy program was expected to produce “millions of dollars” for that school:

“The athletic department will be the recipient of some of the revenue generated, but the university will also receive money for scholarships, Bonfire Memorial maintenance and Corps of Cadets scholarships.”

An announcement by Texas Athletics last week upon the occasion of the UT program’s official launch said it “will provide millions of dollars to The University’s sustainability initiatives and the Athletics Department.”

Both the UT and A&M programs offer electricity produced from “100 percent renewable energy.” Last week’s Texas Longhorns Energy announcement spelled out that this means power “generated by wind, solar energy and biofuels.”

Top state officials continue to battle federal efforts to reduce greenhouse emissions while they voice skepticism about scientific findings indicating that carbon dioxide from fossil-fuel use is changing the earth’s climate for the worse. But the people now marketing renewable energy for the state’s two top public universities appear to have no qualms about addressing prospective customers’ concerns about pollution-caused climate change.

The Web site for Texas Longhorns Energy includes this appeal: “By choosing to power your home or business with Texas Longhorns Energy, you’ll make a difference to UT’s future. You’ll always get a competitive price and get to use clean, green energy to help decrease the carbon footprint you leave behind.”


Going for the top tier

Seven Texas universities want to join UT and A&M (and private Rice University) as research institutions that have so-called “tier one” status. Presidents of the seven schools last week told a legislative hearing about their fund-raising activities – aimed at securing matching funds from the state – to move toward that goal.

Sustainability-related programs were mentioned by a couple of them, according to news reports.

The Dallas Morning News reported that UT-San Antonio had secured a $50 million donation from that city:

“The San Antonio donation will be used toward UTSA’s Center for Sustainable Energy Research Institute, to be led by internationally renowned energy expert Les Shephard, who brought in $450 million in research grants to be part of the new project.”

The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal quoted Texas Tech University President Guy Bailey:

“[The 2009 legislation letting the seven universities compete for tier-one status] has energized our alumni and supporters and provided the impetus for a significant increase in our private support and served as a catalyst for new research partnerships with agencies such as Midwest Research Institute and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.”

Gov. Rick Perry, Texas Tech officials and others announced last month that the school, collaborating with the non-profit National Institute for Renewable Energy, would get $8.4 million from the Texas Emerging Technology fund “to resolve key scientific and technology issues facing the wind power industry.”


“Green fees” for sustainable projects

A brief news item in the San Antonio Express-News last week about UT-San Antonio reflected a broader trend among a number of Texas universities this year – the levying of small “environmental service fees,” commonly known as “green fees,” on students.

Such fees, approved by students in referendum votes and totaling a few dollars per academic year, will create what supporters call “Green Funds” to finance campus sustainability projects. A bill passed by the Legislature in 2009 expedited the establishment of such fees and funds on public campuses.

In the San Antonio article, the Express-News reported that regents of the UT System had approved the green fee of $5 per semester that UT-San Antonio students had approved in the spring.

“The fee is mandatory,” the newspaper reported, “and will begin in spring 2011 and extend through fall 2016. Anyone can pitch ideas for sustainability projects, which will be vetted by a committee made up of mostly students, with faculty and staff oversight.”

UT-San Antonio was one of six Texas universities where students approved green fees in votes during this year’s spring semester. The first was Rice, followed by five public universities. Besides UT-San Antonio, they were UT, A&M, UT-El Paso and the University of North Texas.

Despite vigorous opposition to the A&M green fee by the Texas Aggie Conservatives organization, which warned it “will give you shower timers and low pressure shower heads,” 57 percent of the A&M students still voted in favor of a levy of $3 per semester. By contrast, the vote for the $5 fee at UT was 71 percent.

ReEnergize Texas Coalition, a network of student environmental groups on various campuses, coordinated the campaigns in favor of the fees at the five public universities. The coalition estimated in April that the six green fees would combine to generate more than $6 million for sustainability projects over five years.

The Web site of the coalition’s Think Green Fund Campaign says the “fees can go towards environmental projects related to energy consumption, water use, waste disposal and recycling, green space, purchasing decisions and more. A limit was set at $5 per student per semester for an initial fee. This amount can be increased to as much as $10 per student in subsequent elections.”


Conservation-minded fitness at Rice

Conservative A&M students put off by the idea of bathing under water-conserving shower heads probably would find at least one thing to dislike about Rice’s new Recreation and Wellness Center.

The Rice Thresher, the student newspaper at the Houston school, reported last month that the fitness facility’s sustainability-conscious design, including features to reduce water and electricity use, had earned it “silver” certification from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program commonly called LEED:

The news of the certification status came in mid-May, making the Recreation and Wellness Center the third building at Rice to achieve certification, following the Rice Children’s Campus building and the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen. According to Susann Glenn, Rice’s manager of communications for Facilities, Engineering and Planning, the Recreation and Wellness Center, like all new buildings at Rice, was designed with the intention of meeting silver qualifications at minimum. Glenn described the building as looking somewhat “lantern-like,” with an abundance of large windows and translucent Kalwall, an insulating fiberglass material that allows sunlight to penetrate a room while preventing entrance of excess heat and glare that would come with traditional windows. Materials like Kalwall have allowed the facility to utilize natural daylight instead of artificial lighting, offsetting electricity expenses and reducing environmental impact.

Electricity isn’t the only resource the building was designed to conserve. The bathrooms and locker rooms include low-flow showers and sinks and water-saving toilets.  In addition to water resources, the impact of the building’s construction and design on the land and atmosphere was minimized, since two million pounds of construction materials were recycled, rather than thrown away. Approximately 32 percent of the materials used came from within a 500-mile radius of campus, including the brick, concrete and the building’s steel frame. Director of Sustainability Richard Johnson said even the palm trees by the pool were chosen with their environmental impact in mind; they are a low-maintenance, frost-hardy species native to the southern United States.


Solar training in Amarillo

The Amarillo Globe-News reported last month that Amarillo College, a two-year school, had obtained a $798,424 grant from the National Science Foundation to fund a solar energy training program for three years:

The program is meant to complement AC’s wind energy technician program as part of the larger renewable energy program.


The solar component is intended to ready students for jobs such as certified installation, designing systems, manufacturing components and performing maintenance. It will cover all facets of solar energy, from photovoltaic generation of electricity to capturing the sun’s rays to heat water.


The solar grant follows a $414,000 grant in May from the Texas Comptroller’s office to purchase and equip two 44-foot trailers as self-contained classrooms to take wind and solar training on the road.

– Bill Dawson

Image credit: Branded Retail Energy