CSU Commitment to Sustainability

Mean Green and Eco Green

April 5th, 2012

By Erik Fallis
CSU Public Affairs

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The solar installation on the rooftop of the Clayes Performing Arts Center at Cal State Fullerton

The color green can be a powerful symbol.  The introduction of “Greenbacks” as the U.S. dollar in 1861 solidified green as the color of money, greed and excess in American culture.  In the song For the Love of Money – the theme to Donald Trump’s Apprentice – “mean green” takes on all of those meanings.  Yet, the sustainability movement in many ways has reclaimed one of the oldest uses of green, as a symbol of nature and ecological balance.

Mean green and eco green can be compatible.  Reducing resource costs is good economics and reducing non-renewable resource use is good sustainability.  California State University campuses, facing cuts in state support, need to make a case for sustainability that also demonstrates good financial sense and ultimately provides more resources for students.  Below are a few examples.      

Platinum Alchemy

Early this year, CSU Fullerton turned on the latest in a series of three solar installations.  The systems combine to produce 1.6-megawatt hours of power annually throughout their 25-year lifespan – the equivalent to reducing 26,422 tons of greenhouse gas emissions, or eliminating 5,181 passenger vehicles from the road.  This system will take a sizeable chunk out of the campus electric bill, an estimated $9 million over the next 25 years with $2.3 million coming from Southern California Edison in the next five years.

What makes this project especially remarkable is that the campus, not a private partner, owns the systems.  The university funded the $6 million installation with a loan from the CSUF Auxiliary Services Corp.  Energy savings will allow the campus to pay the loan in less than seven years, after which the panels will continue to produce power for another 18 years.

This project has two added benefits. 

First, because CSUF owns the solar systems it also own the “carbon credits” that polluters will need to purchase under a fast arriving California cap and trade program.  This puts the campus in a position to reap even greater economic returns by selling those credits on the carbon market. 

Second, the solar panels are feeding energy to CSUF’s new student housing complex.  The powering of the buildings from a renewable source combined with a host of high-efficiency and eco-friendly features to generate the first Platinum Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification for student housing in California.

Overall, CSUF performed quite a feat of alchemy.  The campus took sunlight and turned it into pure platinum, with plenty of green along the way.

Profitable Hot Air

Being accused of producing a lot of hot air is often an insult.  Not, as it turns out, at either CSU East Bay or San Francisco State.  As part of a statewide alternative energy initiative, the two bay area campuses are both host to massive demonstration fuel cells that generate energy for thousands of homes and as a byproduct put out a lot of heat.  Neither campus paid for the fuel cell, nor receives energy directly from the fuel cell, but CSUEB and SFSU get to use the waste heat in exchange for hosting the systems.

How valuable is waste heat?  Well, consider that a constant source of heat can be harnessed to warm water and buildings – waste heat can even be used for cooling with the right equipment.  Capturing fuel cell heat lessens the need to burn fossil fuel in boilers.  As a result, CSUEB anticipates saving between $10,000 and $12,000 a month.

SFSU is anticipating savings of $247,006 per year in avoided natural gas costs for the campus.  Given the $550,000 campus cost to install the heat recovery equipment, the campus will cross the payback point in just over two years of operation – not bad for a lot of hot air.

Born Gold

CSU San Bernardino’s Palm Desert campus is located in one of the university system’s more extreme desert climates.  Average temperatures exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, and average annual rainfall does not exceed 4 inches.  Given this environment, the new Palm Desert Health Sciences building was designed and constructed to minimize energy required for cooling, and surrounding xeriscaping minimizes the need for irrigation.  The building stacks up well against neighboring campus buildings in 2011, using about 36% less electricity relative to size and 66% less irrigation water.

Success in energy efficiency, water conservation, and other sustainability features resulted in LEED for New Construction Gold certification for the Health Sciences building.  The various resource-wise features keep costs down – with 2011 utilities savings estimated to be $20,000 compared to previously constructed buildings on the campus.  The savings reach an estimated $50,000 compared to a minimum Title 24 compliant building – a definite advantage to being born gold.

Smart Investments

University structures may appear permanent and unchanging.  In reality, constant work is required to protect this public investment.  The constant cycle of renewal actually provides an opportunity to improve the efficiency of existing structures, as opposed to starting new.  CSU Channel Islands has found ways to reduce campus electricity consumption by 24% since 2008 by taking steps that include switching to high-efficiency light bulbs in interior and exterior spaces, installing classroom occupancy sensors, daylight sensors and lighting controls, and improving heating, ventilation and air systems.  These actions translate to $245,300 in energy savings from 2008-2009 through 2010-2011.

Of course, retrofits can be costly.  That is unless you happen to be talking about the Tanimura & Antle library at CSU Monterey Bay.  With no physical changes to the equipment, the campus was able to reprogram computer sequences to take advantage of thermodynamic principles and cut energy costs by 20%.  The return for the campus is $28,000 per year.  A retrofit that cost nothing for equipment or materials and returns $28,000 per year is definitely a smart investment.


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Last Updated: April 23, 2014