Metro Detroit's Institutes Of Greener Learning

Students at Oakland Community College campuses have something in common with Stanford University's coeds and the corporate citizens of Apple: They have the option of swigging Green Planet water, H20 that's bottled inside a petroleum-free container made of corn husks. The product is aimed at decreasing the carbon footprint by eliminating a major source of 'proliferative' plastic at its five campuses.

The Green Planet bottles are just one of numerous eco-minded projects taking place among OCC's 39,000 students. Earlier this month, the college decided to let DTE Energy install a solar power farm at its campus in Waterford, and the school already has one solar installation in Royal Oak.

"We're such a large school, when you do something you think about the impact, just the students, let alone the employees," says Dr. Jackie Shadko, president of OCC's Orchard Ridge campus.

With the health of the environment as a compass, a college-wide sustainability committee turned its attention on "what we do with our food service" and all the waste that comes with it, she adds.

While reusable bottles are the best choice, that's often not convenient for OCC's students. "We saw one of the first places we coiled start making a change were the ubiquitous vending machines you have on any college campus. They're filled with petrochemical bottles," she says.

The clear bottles, which are only available through special contracts, "are really cutting-edge," Shadko explains. OCC is the first Michigan organization to offer the Green Planet water.

It might be surprising that the community college is pulling out the big league stops when it comes to greening things up, while the larger, more well-financed U's - Oakland and especially Wayne State - are bringing up the rear.

Meanwhile, at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, where environmental-minded thinking is part of the curriculum, students regularly compete in fuel cell design and other alternative energy and engineering competitions.

"We've been doing this a long time," says Joe Veryser, associate dean of the College of Architecture and Design. "A lot of people are just coming into it."

Lawrence Tech students use its green roofs, rainwater collection systems, solar power panels and other eco-minded facilities, such as the Alfred A. Taubman Student Services Center, as living laboratories. The student center was constructed with recyclable materials and has 120 geothermal wells that heat and cool the building. It also has a 10,000-square-foot green roof that controls and reducers water runoff, absorbing water into the roof and sending the remaining into a 12,000-gallon cistern that stores gray water.

"Today, people talk about green and sustainability as if it's the icing on the cake... the finishing part of the building or the project. It should be a part of of it from the beginning," says Veryser. "It should be part of the design. Every building should be sustainable. ...And that's what we teach and show our students."

Over at Oakland University, which hosted a BioEnergy Conference last week, the school's first environmentally-minded, sustainable building is under construction. The new Human Health Science Building will be Oakland's first geothermal heat pump installation, and it will include an innovative desiccant cooling system powered with what Oakland University says may be the largest solar thermal energy system in the Midwest. The project will also use variable refrigerant flow heat pump technology.

Last to the eco party is Wayne State University in Detroit. But they get points for trying. Recently, the school started relying on battery-powered vehicles to get their work crews around campus, while a SEED Wayne project is to looking to build sustainable food systems for the campus and nearby Detroit communities. Earlier this week, a new Office of Campus Sustainability opened on Woodward Avenue.

"The purpose of the OCS is to provide a unifying space for WSU insiders, as well as those from the surrounding urban community, to gather and develop sustainable solutions to campus and regional focus issues,"  says Carol Miller, professor and chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and a member of the International Joint Commission Great Lakes Science Advisory Board.

Though their school colors and academic approaches differ and their dedication varies, increasingly these institutions of higher learning are adopting green policies, some with innovative sustainable energy generation and ambitious conservation projects. Others are opting, for now, to lower hanging fruit like campus-wide recycling programs and energy-saving changes such as motion-detection lights.

Whatever the policy, project or practice, the outcome is Metro Detroit colleges and universities learning to ride in tandem with the environment.

"It's about stewardship and responsibility," Shadko says. "In fact when we started this sustainability committee a few years ago we started it with a zero budget. That was on purpose. In that whole vein you don't have to spend money to do this. You can create responsibilities. If you really do your homework you can do things without taxing the budget."

Here's a round up of green syllabi and initiatives at four local U's:

Lawrence Technological University
  • The Center for Sustainability advances education and research in sustainable design, manufacturing and commerce and creates a network of academic, research and professional, municipal, commercial partnerships. It also sponsors Seminars On Sustainability for the Environment and integrates sustainability into the curricula for each of its colleges.
  • The Green Building initiative is showcased in the Student Services Center and in energy-saving steps and green structures across campus.
  • Solar power installations
  • Its Great Lakes Stormwater Management Institute takes advantage of being situated in the heart of the Great Lakes watershed with two Rouge River tributaries. It uses the water to have access to resources and expertise to educate students, homeowners, policy makers and industry professionals on improving water quality by implementing innovative practices in stormwater management. Part of that management has led to the creation of rain gardens, the use of native landscaping and porous pavers. The campus features a system of weirs, tile fields, and long-rooted grasses and trees that prevent 60 percent of the rainwater that falls on campus from draining to the river.
  • Course work in sustainability
Oakland Community College
  • Solar panel installations. The Royal Oak Campus has had a prototype solar panel that powers some light in the building for the last 15 years.
  • The Highland Lakes campus in Waterford will be the site of a DTE solar panel installation. The $1.5 million project, approved March 21, begins this summer. Power will feed the DTE power grid. The 20-year agreement will pay OCC $5,000 per year for use of the site and also cover installation costs.
  • DTE's Solar Currents Kiosks will be installed at the Highland Lakes and Auburn Hills campuses and give viewers graphic information on solar panel technology and the current power output of the Highland Lakes solar installation.
  • The use of green cleaning agents for the last three years
  • Plans to eliminate styrofoam products at food services and go with a Detroit company that provides recycled paper products
  • College-wide recycling policy
  • Installation of hand dryers to cut use of paper towels, energy-efficient lighting.
  • Regular analysis of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems and regular monitoring of carbon footprint
  • Plans underway to make campuses, not just buildings, smoke-free, in order to prevent smoke from entering ventilation systems
  • Credit classes in sustainable architecture and environmental science
Oakland University
  • Biomass and wind energy projects are the subjects of feasibility studies funded by the Southeast Michigan Resource Conservation & Development Council with the goal of determining the technical and economic merit of installing utility scale wind turbines and an urban waste wood fired boiler system.
  • Investment in emerging lightning technologies. In early 2011, OU and DTE's Community Lighting group began a pilot program to install and evaluate LED, induction, and other outdoor lighting technologies across campus.
  • In 1998, facilities were updated to reduce energy consumption and replace aging infrastructure.
  • A newer groundwater irrigation well with a lower playing field removes the soccer, softball, baseball and practice fields from the city water supply and brings a return on investment in three years.
  • Updating HVAC and lighting systems for improved air quality, comfort and energy savings.
  • Installation of a solar photovoltaic system on the roof of the student apartment complex in 2003.
Wayne State University
  • The newly opened Office of Campus Sustainability will be a place for various sustainability subcommittees to strategize, carry out plans and analyze outcomes.
  • Vertical axis wind turbine built on rooftop of engineering building with plans to make it a multi-powered energy station
  • Retrofitting old lighting with energy efficient lighting, installation of motion detecting light sensors which keep lights off until a person enters the room
  • Sustainable computing. WSU is devising an energy-efficient way to operate data centers and computer systems and also plan for physical waste of unneeded computers and computer equipment.
  • Serving Michigan-made and grown foods in school dining facilities
  • Campus-wide recycling efforts underway, including batteries, paint, and chemical reclamation

Kim North Shine is a Detroit-area freelance writer and the Development News Editor for Metromode. Her previous article was The Accidental Restaurateur.

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All Photographs by David Lewinski
All Photos taken at Lawrence Tech

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