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Green Behind the Scenes

Climate InitiativesCommitted staff, institutional partnerships and innovative technologies are helping Tufts continue to be an environmental leader.


When students moved into Sophia Gordon Hall in September, they may not have immediately noticed how the new 126-bed dormitory differs from the other housing on Tufts' Medford/Somerville campus.

But when students plug in their laptops, solar power cells on the dorm's roof contribute to the electricity that powers them. Shower water is partially heated by solar-thermal collectors on the roof. When residents do laundry or brush their teeth, they are using water-efficient appliances. Those and a variety of other green design features comprise Tufts' first "green" building, adhering to voluntary guidelines developed by the United States Green Building Council.

Such an achievement represents Tufts' continually strengthening commitment to an environmentally sound future, as well as the behind-the-scenes work that turns green ideas into reality, according to Sarah Hammond Creighton, project manager of Tufts Climate Initiative (TCI).

"The key to everything is partnerships," she says. "From the president to the Operations Division to the students, Tufts is working on sustainability at all levels."

"The key to everything is partnerships."

— Sarah Hammond Creighton

Tufts has long displayed a dedication to the environment, particularly combating climate change. In 1999, it became the first university to pledge to lower its greenhouse gas emissions in accord with the Kyoto Protocol, and in 2003, President Lawrence S. Bacow reaffirmed the university's commitment to fighting climate change by pledging to meet new standards drafted by leaders from the U.S. and Canada. In addition, Tufts was one of the founding members, and still the only private university member, of the Chicago Climate Exchange, North America's only emissions trading system.

"We've always had some degree of energy awareness," says John Roberto, vice president of operations. "But clearly over the last 10 or 15 years, we've really heightened our focus on the long-term environmental impact to the global community of how people consume energy."

'The Mother of All Issues'

In the past two decades, scientific research has exposed the serious need for greater energy conservation.

"Climate change is the mother of all issues that we're facing," says TCI Outreach Coordinator Anja Kollmuss. "It's definitely altering the planet in a way we have never altered it before and it impacts all our existing problems."

Sounds like a problem worth solving, and it's a fight that's "woven into the fabric of Tufts' mission," says Creighton. "Climate change is an international health and environmental problem. Actions taken anywhere on the globe have international benefits or consequences."

The challenge, of course, is how to tackle such a monumental issue. And the simple answer, if there is one, is teamwork.

"We work as a bridge between the ideas and idealism of students and faculty and their implementation," says Creighton. "We partner first and foremost with the Division of Operations: facilities, construction, dining, purchasing, risk management, public safety and mail services; just about everyone."

Tufts Climate Initiative was founded on Earth Day 1999 as a brainchild of Fletcher School Professor and Tufts Institute of the Environment senior director William Moomaw. While the organization's goal is to help make Tufts' environmental pledges become promises fulfilled, they don't do it alone. Working hand-in-hand with Energy Manager Betsy Isenstein and Tufts' Operations Division, the group has advocated for changes across the board to help make Tufts more efficient and environmentally sound.

"Often times, TCI and Betsy do a lot of creative thinking on the front end, identifying energy efficiency savings that will reduce our emissions profile," says Roberto. "And then operations—particularly facilities—is the facilitator of the project."

"We're really just a catalyst," says Kollmuss. "We educate everyone else on how they can make university-wide changes."

A Course of Action

There are three primary ways that the University leverages those partnerships to address climate change: by encouraging personal conservation efforts, by building more efficient energy systems and, when possible, by using fuels that produce fewer greenhouse gases.

Take, for instance, lightbulbs. "All the lighting now at Tufts wasn't in place 10 or 15 years ago. New lamps, new ballasts, new fixtures," says Creighton, pointing to the ceiling. "This light, had it been here in 1990, would have had four bulbs in it. Now it has two, for the same amount of light and about 40 percent of the electricity."

Tufts has also employed motion-sensors that shut off lights when no one is present. "We're always looking at new places we can attack, and that's one of them," says Isenstein. "It's a different campus at night than it was five years ago. The buildings are a lot darker, and that saves electricity."

Energy-saving initiatives

Efforts to reduce emissions include electric-powered mail vehicles, water-efficient washing machines and solar arrays.

How else can little steps reap big environmental gains? Right now, more than 75 vending machines on Tufts' campus use vending misers, devices which minimize energy use while maintaining the necessary temperature. Research showed that the devices allow vending machines to use half as much electricity as conventional models, which saves money and prevents 60 tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually.

In January, Tufts took another huge step towards reducing its carbon emissions by switching to a new electricity provider, TransCanada. In the new contract, about 60 percent of the University's power comes from hydroelectricity, a zero greenhouse gas emitting energy source.

"So we've cut our emissions from electricity by 60 percent. And since electricity is about 50 percent of our total emissions, that's a significant amount," says Creighton, who credited the move largely to Isenstein. "It's a great thing, but it's certainly not enough," says Isenstein. "We've got more work to do."

In addition, the Operations Division has also improved the energy efficiency of building systems by replacing the schools' boilers, motors, chillers, insulations, steam traps and washing machines—"Basically, all the things students don't see," says Kollmuss. These key improvements have paid off in more ways than one.

""Even though you may have to put in a lot up front, with these projects you save so much energy that the projects will pay for themselves, usually within five years."

— Anja Kollmuss

"Even though you may have to put in a lot up front, with these projects you save so much energy that the projects will pay for themselves, usually within five years," Kollmuss explains. "So it's not just climate-friendly and energy efficient, it's cost-effective as well."

"I think we're at a point where a lot of the easy stuff has been done, or, as people like to say, 'we've picked the low-hanging fruit,'" jokes Isenstein. "The projects from here on in get more complicated and sophisticated. But of course, as the costs go up, the rewards are greater."

Leading The Charge

Tufts' environmental success stories are causing others to take note. Every week, Tufts Climate Initiative receives a phone call from another school or company interested in learning more about Tufts' efforts, from the vending misers to student energy contests. And nearly 100 colleges and universities in New England alone have followed Tufts' lead and signed on to the climate change goals in the Kyoto Protocol.

In other words, Tufts is a leader in this battle, And the Tufts Climate Initiative team is pleased to serve as a catalyst for the University's greening initiatives.

"This is a crucial issue, for us personally as people, for us as an institution, and for us as a society," Creighton says. "Doing our small part is important."


Profile written by Ben Hoffman, Class of 2006

Ben Hoffman, a native of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, majored in English and minored in communications and media studies.

Photos of Sophia Gordon Hall by Jodi Hilton for Tufts University. Other photos by Joanie Tobin for Tufts University.

This story originally ran on Oct. 2, 2006.