Blue Goes Green

They are known as Team Planet Blue, and at the University of Michigan where maize is the only acceptable color to go with blue, they are all about green. For this team of building engineers, faculty members and staffers, the charge is to fan out across the university, searching out flaws, bad habits and other sources of energy waste, to seek out recycling opportunities, and in general identify changes that can further sustainability on campus.

The team formed four years ago with the goal of hitting 30 buildings a year, and 120 by the end of the four-year mark. Planet Blue is responsible for $5.2 million in utility cost savings for 67 buildings through the end of 2010. Energy consumption has been cut by roughly 14 percent thus far. So many changes are recent and in progress that the real numbers remain unknown, but one thing is for sure -- they are growing every day.

"Not only are we trying to save energy, we're trying to save water and protect the earth. And it all translates to money," says Terry Alexander, executive director of U-M's Office of Campus Sustainability.

The team is working on buildings 60-90, analyzing equipment, interviewing occupants, looking here and there for the leaky window, unneeded lights, the faulty heating system, or an environmentally babied Steinway piano.

"Unless you talk to people you wouldn't know why people are using the buildings the way they are," Alexander says. "We'll work with them to change what they're doing to save energy."

Case in point: The Steinway piano on the stage of the massive Rackham auditorium. What Team Planet Blue found was "we were heating and cooling the entire building because we needed to keep conditions perfect for the piano," Alexander says.

So the piano moved into its own climate controlled room. It's happy and the heating and cooling costs are down.

"That created a huge amount of savings," Alexander says. "It's little things like this you wonder, 'Why are we doing this?' You find out there's a reason, but there's also a solution."

Every nook and cranny

Team Planet Blue is one of dozens -- if not hundreds -- of initiatives aimed at saving energy, protecting natural resources and promoting green thinking among students, faculty and employees. Some projects and practices launched many years ago and others are just getting off the ground. The ground covered by the university is vast, since the campus hosts 40,000 students, 1,100 buildings, and a fleet of hundreds of buses and work vehicles.

The sustainability efforts at U-M run the green gamut. Campus buses run on biodiesel fuel, irrigation is controlled so that watering is based not on a schedule but on need, preventing overuse of chemicals and run-off, among other benefits. There are social networks to promote carpooling. Solar power installations seek to learn how much might be saved on electricity. Rain gardens and green roofs conserve water and keep buildings cool. Students compete in recycling competitions, and in a long-running end-of-year tradition, departing students' castoffs -- thousands of pounds of furniture, clothing, appliances, books and more -- are gathered and donated to local charities.

In 1995 recycling began at Michigan Stadium, making U-M one of the first colleges in the nation to recycle at its sports venues. Since then U-M has become a leader and role model for schools and companies around the country as it makes changes to support conservation. Nearly 10.5 tons of cardboard and paper are recovered annually, along with 19 tons of mixed containers. That still leaves, however, about another 80 tons of waste to be dealt with.

U-M also teaches these practices to its students and researches it in its labs. With only a fraction so far participating, the on-campus recycling rate is around 31 percent. The U-M Health System, which does not fall under Team Planet Blue's control, recently won a national award recognizing its achievements in sustainability and conservation.

Making the grade

Despite all these efforts, U-M was only ranked 7th in the Big 10 by the College Sustainabilty Report Card. With an overall grade of B, it failed to make the Top 100 schools, which all scored at least an A-minus. Top schools were cited for innovative and ground-breaking programs like growing their own food, offering free bikes to students, and promoting paper-free classrooms.

U-M's grade of B was a drop from last year's B+, which Alexander attributes to inaccurate or lacking information going to the Green Report Card organization that graded 332 schools in 2011. That grading failed to take into account the bicycling programs on campus and also one of U-M's student groups neglecting to return its part of the survey, he says.

"I like to think people look to us for leadership," Alexander says. "No one school is doing everything right. Each one has its strengths."

"A lot of Big 10 schools are picking up the Planet Blue idea," he says.

One up and coming area where U-M plans to show leadership is sustainable, or green, computing. "This is the buzz topic in the industry," Alexander says. Computers and servers require cooler rooms, often meaning a whole building has to be cooled more than it would be without computers and servers. They also require fans. These facilities are a major drain on electricity.

"One of the biggest things we find is a lot of units like to set up their own computer server area so they can maintain control," Alexander says.

What Team Planet Blue has done is consolidate servers into data centers now on campus, server farms. The school is also looking at virtual servers, like cloud computing, where space is bought on one big system that segregates all users and their information. Having them all in one place or on one main server saves cooling bills, electric bills and in some cases it has moved servers, including one of administration's servers, into  safer areas, away from water pipes.

"This is a major effort. We're trying to figure out the most efficient way to combine these systems," he says.

Another major area of sustainability is the campus lawn and landscaping sprinkler system. By installing a computerized water conserving irrigation system, water usage dropped by 68 percent, saving $141,000 a year.

"Through this commitment to sustainability and the use of smart technology, the university is not only saving money but also is working to help the planet," he says. When you consider that there are some 80,000 computers operating on campus in any given year, the focus seems like a no-brainer.

Transportation is another source of accomplishment, Alexander says. More than six million riders rode its buses and shuttle vans last year. U-M also pays the Ann Arbor public bus system to transport its students and employees, and it offers a Zipcar program to promote sharing of cars that can be rented by the hour. And at least two social networks are available to students who want to carpool on long trips to and from home, or students and faculty who want to share rides locally to and from class or work.

About 550 vehicles on campus are powered by alternative energy. The buses and large shuttle vans operate on biodiesel, most cars on e85 ethanol, and there are even a number of cars that run on gas-electric. Maintenance crews use fully electric vehicles and the school is in the process of purchasing four diesel electric hybrid buses. The plan is to replace gas powered vehicles with clean or alternative energy as they are taken out of use.

The next mode of transportation to be promoted by the U will be biking to school. Already, an indoor bike rack was opened three months ago at the Fletcher Street parking structure. Cyclists rent space there.

"We're working with the city on improving bicycle transportation options," Alexander says.

Green thinking is seeping into the classrooms, as well. One program in the school of natural resources assigns students sustainability projects each semester. When it started a few years ago, there was one class of 30 students. It's expanded into two classes and more than double the students and resulted in several projects being put into practice. One in particular led to a partnership between the campus sustainability office and the Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute at U-M to publish the Green Wolverine Guide. It teaches students how to live in a sustainable manner, points out environmental areas of interest on campus and is placed in residents' halls and distributed to students on campus tours.

"We're getting a lot of students interested in coming up with these ideas to help improve the campus environment," Alexander says. "This is how we keep it going, and get it to grow."

Who knows, with a little extra effort, U-M's green report card (it's currently ranked no. 5 in the Big Ten, behind no. 4 MSU) may ultimately match its educational reputation. At the very least, it outperforms no. 7 Ohio State.

Kim North Shine is a Detroit-area freelance writer and the Development News Editor for Metromode.

All photos by Doug Coombe


Terry Alexander at U of M's Office of Campus Sustainability
Recycling caps and gowns at The Dana Building
Recycling at The Ross School of Business
Terry in the U.S. Green Building Council LEED Silver certified Ross School of Business
Thermal Solar Collectors at the U of M Central Power Plant
Terry in the sunlit atrium of The Ross School of Business
Terry by the North Campus storm drain system