The Environmental Protection Agency has named St. Thomas the top user of green energy among schools in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in 2014-2015.
This is the fourth consecutive honor for the university, which increased green power usage by 5 percent from the 2013-2014 competition. St. Thomas now gets 87 percent of its electricity from renewable sources like wind, solar power and geothermal energy through a program from Xcel Energy.
“It’s just a major choice that the university makes to buy energy the ordinary way or buy it in a way that makes sense for the future,” Director of Environmental Studies Elise Amel said.
James Critchfield, director of the EPA’s Green Power Partnership, lauded St. Thomas’ energy choices in an email.
“By choosing to use green power, the University of St. Thomas is cutting its carbon footprint and setting an example for others to follow,” he said.
St. Thomas’ yearly green energy usage adds up to more than 34 million kilowatt-hours, or enough to power more than 3,000 average American homes annually, according to the EPA. Amel said that with its energy choices, St. Thomas is a role model for other schools with its support of zero-emissions electricity.
“St. Thomas is focused on working toward the common good, and so being a leader in foresight and vision for what that common good looks like is really important,” she said.
Thirty-nine collegiate conferences and 90 schools participated in the 2014-2015 challenge, with the largest green power usage in the country coming from Penn State at more than 200 million kWh. Together, all participating schools use almost 2.4 billion kWh of green power.
Sophomore Mattie Davenport, a member of the UST Sustainability Committee, knows that because college campuses are such usage-intensive areas they can strongly affect the surrounding environment.
“It makes such a big impact in our community that we can really make an impact positively or negatively depending on what we do,” she said.
St. Thomas currently pays a premium to Xcel for the use of green power but may soon switch to getting energy from solar farms, according to former Coordinator for Recycling and Central Receiving Bob Douglas. The university would get a rebate for using solar farms.
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St. Thomas was ranked No. 19 on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Green Power Partnerships top 30 list among colleges and universities nationwide, released Jan. 26.
The list is based on the total amount of energy used each year from sustainable sources. St. Thomas currently uses 34,134,560 kilowatts per hour, while the No. 1-ranked University of Pennsylvania uses 200,183,000 kilowatts per hour.
Bob Douglas, coordinator of Recycling and Central Receiving, said he believes the school sets an example for other colleges and universities.
“I’m happy that (St. Thomas) is getting recognized nationally for its commitment to reduce the use of carbon-based energy,” Douglas said. “Our position in the EPA Green Power listings shows that we are leading the way among state colleges and universities in our use of alternative energy.”
Douglas also said the ranking will give the university more recognition as a whole and increase students’ awareness of St. Thomas’ environmental priorities.
The decision to use Xcel Windsource energy on campus plays a bigger role in the St. Thomas community than most students and faculty are aware of, according to Douglas.
“We know that the continued dependence on carbon-based fuel not only heats up the environment, but the resulting warming cascades into an increase of disease, invasive species, catastrophic weather episodes … while reducing the clean air necessary to enjoy a healthy and vital lifestyle,” Douglas said. “Our present energy choices help determine the kind of future students of St. Thomas will live in.”
According to EcoWatch.com, Minnesota is one most environmentally friendly states in the country, with both Minneapolis and St. Paul earning a top 10 spot in the nation’s greenest cities. St. Paul is ranked eighth, and Minneapolis is ranked 10th.
Sophomore Melanie Bussan said she is proud of the contributions St. Thomas has made.
“I think it says a lot about us as a community that we really strive to lessen the impact that we have on the environment and to be more conscious of the world around us,” Bussan said.
St. Thomas recently added new solar energy panels to the Anderson Student Center that could eventually boost its overall ranking. The panels went online one month ago, and their contribution will be seen on the EPA colleges and universities list in January of 2016.
“The decision to invest in alternative fuels illustrates our desire to make the future environment a better place for all of our students and communities,” Douglas said. “Our environment is the platform on which the future will rest.”
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Professor Gaston “Chip” Small and St. Thomas biology students recently received a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to conduct research on a nutrient imbalance problem in St. Paul’s Lake Como.
The $15,000 grant given this summer allowed Small and his students to analyze the lake, which has an excess amount of phosphorus stored in the lake’s sediment. At the same time, algae is soaking up nitrogen, which causes a nitrogen deficiency in the lake. Much of the excess phosphorus comes from falling leaves and pet waste, Small said.
“Any urban or agricultural areas tend to have lakes that have excessive amounts of nutrients,” Small said.
Senior Louis Sand initially started working with Small on the project two years ago. He collected water from Lake Como, grew plants in the water and gathered measurements on their growth and nutrient intake.
Junior Jessica Brown began working on a separate facet of the project, which involved finding out what specific nutrients were being limited in the lake. Her part of the project focused on how plants had an impact on the water.
This past summer, junior Quinn Niederluecke began measuring phosphorus in the lake’s sediment. Her portion of the project involves computer work, which she is continuing this semester.
“I’m working on getting a model of Lake Como up and running on the computer, which can show how nutrients flow in and out of Lake Como and potentially try out different solutions to the problem that they are having with the excess nutrients of algae,” Niederluecke said.
Small heard about the grant from colleagues, and he, along with other members of the biology department, considered various ideas to submit to the EPA. Small decided to submit the Lake Como project plans that were based on Sand’s prior study.
The department was given the EPA’s People, Planet and Prosperity Award, which grants $15,000 to students to conduct environmental research. The university has been approved for Phase I of the award. In this stage, the team is expected to research an issue’s challenges and seek potential sustainable solutions. Forty-two awards were given across the country.
Based on the findings, the EPA may grant Small the Phase II award, which is designed to implement the potential sustainable solutions. It could fund up to $75,000 and is given out to fewer Phase I winners. Students will attend a conference in Washington, D.C., in April during which their reports, proposals and presentations will be scored. The exact number of winners is not predetermined but is based on the quality of the projects.
Small’s project to repair Lake Como is one of many. St. Paul has made multiple efforts to limit the amount of phosphorus going into the lake. The Capitol Region Watershed District has been collecting data and its improvement efforts include the installation of an underground water storage tank and a stormwater system. Small said it also has encouraged residents to get involved in street cleanup and install rain gardens in their yards.
But he explained that the university has taken a different approach to the problem.
“All the projects have been focused on putting less in, which is important, but we have this data from the sediment that there’s so much in there already. Whatever nutrients come in, they just stay there and build up over time,” Small said.
One solution, according to Small, is to create a hydroponic garden with plants that soak up the excess nutrients, which Brown worked on.
“My project was focusing on how different plant types will react with the lake water, so we focused on nitrogen-rich plants because Lake Como is nitrogen-deficient,” Brown said. “Then we analyzed how much phosphorus they were able to take in.”
Along with doing research at the lake, the team has also used the aquaponic system at St. Thomas. They brought in fish and plants to attempt to create a design for what could be done to lakes based on this smaller scale. However, Small said there is a difficulty in finding balance.
“There’s this sort of paradox with trying to grow these plants. There are too many nutrients in the lake, and that’s why there is so much algae. At the same time, the plants you are growing would like even more nutrients in the water, and so it’s hard to keep them all happy,” Small said.
As for the future of the project, Small said his spring 2015 Environmental Problem Solving class will pick up where these students have left off by continuing to do experiments and sampling on the lake. Sand and Brown are not working on the project currently.
Niederluecke said she hopes the project can do even bigger things in the future.
“I see us looking at other lakes as well as Como to see and compare the differences in how the solution could be affecting the area or potentially how solutions can help out these urban lakes,” Niederluecke said.
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The Environmental Protection Agency presented St. Thomas last week with its third consecutive annual award for using the most green power of any college or university in the MIAC.
The Green Power Award not only recognizes St. Thomas as the MIAC’s largest green power user, but the EPA provides incentives to help the university continue toward energy efficiency.
“It’s part of an EPA challenge called the EPA Partnership,” Associate Vice President for Facilities Jim Brummer said. “We submit energy usage that we use through Xcel’s Windsource program.”
Brummer said the university purchases 82 percent of its total electrical consumption through the Xcel Windsource program.
The 2013-14 challenge involved 33 collegiate conferences and 79 schools. According to the EPA, St. Thomas uses nearly 33 million kilowatt hours of wind-generated power which can be compared to taking more than 5,000 cars off the road.
“When it comes to sustainability, we’re assisting making things happen by volunteering in the Windsource program,” Brummer said.
Junior Kelly Geraghty said she is excited about the award.
“I think it’s great that we’re being recognized for such an impactful award,” Geraghty said. “It’s not something that people often about when they think of St. Thomas.”
Junior Riley Reinhart said St. Thomas’ updated campus is a step forward in sustainability.
“It’s nice that the new buildings are contributing to energy efficiency,” Reinhart said.
While it is not possible to determine which buildings consume the most energy, Brummer said the buildings with the most activity are top candidates.
“When you think about energy consumption, you have to think about the buildings with the most activity, resources and occupants,” Brummer said. “Those are the ones that probably use the most energy.”
Sophomore Emily Peters is also enthusiastic about the award.
“The fact that we’re saving enough energy equivalent to taking over 5,000 cars off the road is awesome,” Peters said.
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