Environmental Internships Changing Harvard University

The Declaration, Volume 5, Number 1: December 2001  [Operations]

By Alvin Powell and Leith Sharp

A group of summer interns helped show the way to a more environmentally friendly Harvard, featuring cars that run on soybeans, energy efficient buildings, and organically nurtured lawns. The 11 interns worked on seven projects across the university from June through August 2001. Their goal was to confront concrete problems and come up with workable solutions. The internships were coordinated by the Harvard Green Campus Initiative, in collaboration with several different administrative units at Harvard that hosted the interns.

Leith Sharp, director of the Green Campus Initiative, said she thought the internships were very successful. “[The internships] are about producing a product that can be implemented within the departments,” Sharp said. “That’s the success of the program, that every project has produced or will produce a change at the University.”

The Harvard Green Campus Initiative (HGCI) is in the business of catalyzing change at many different levels within Harvard University, seeking operational change as much as deeper institutional change. At the institutional level the HGCI is working to legitimize the campus as a living laboratory for teaching and research around environmental sustainability. “Our first step must be to address a pervasive institutional assumption that places campus sustainability efforts in conflict with the core mission of teaching and research,” says Sharp. “The basis of this assumption is a false perception that campus sustainability efforts divert financial and human resources from the core mission of teaching and research, weakening the ability of the university to achieve broad reaching impact and market security.”

The Harvard summer internship program has provided a new vision of how addressing campus environmental sustainability can occur in alignment with the university’s core mission, conserving financial resources and enhancing human resources while also contributing to teaching and research outcomes. Sharp believes that “beyond the immediate operational value of the work done over the summer, we have in our hands precious evidence of a higher road for the university – a road that transcends perceived mission conflicts and capitalizes on new synergies to the benefit of all.”

The projects included:
A greenhouse gas inventory: The university wide inventory found that over the last 10 years, Harvard’s production of carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas, was up almost 52 percent. Much of that is due to increased power consumption from new construction and the rapid increase in computer use. The project included recommendations that the university reduce its energy consumption by implementing conservation programs, utilizing energy-efficient building designs, and shifting to renewable energy sources where possible.

This project will be ongoing as the HGCI and others are grappling with many complexities around metering, data collection and data quality assurance. The ultimate goal is for the greenhouse gas inventory to become an institutionalized reporting protocol that informs future planning decisions. Harvard is at least two years away from reaching this goal.

Energy efficiency opportunities: This project, managed within University Operations Services (UOS), identified opportunities to save energy at a variety of university buildings. The project emerged within UOS after all UOS Directors attended a half-day seminar on the Natural Step. The HGCI had co-organized this event in the hope that it would effectively ‘make the case’ for environmental sustainability. The case was made and all UOS Directors became engaged in planning for longer-term sustainability efforts within the Department. One of the first projects UOS agreed to was to partner with the HGCI in employing and managing a number of students over the summer to help define and implement environmental projects. The energy efficiency project assessed how UOS could position itself as an energy efficient service provider within Harvard University. The project reviewed internal operations, researched Energy Star programs and identified training programs and communication efforts to expand the knowledge of on-site managers and maintenance personnel as to where savings can occur.

This program could see over one hundred staff directly involved with the work of identifying and implementing a range of energy efficiency projects throughout the university – something that would provide Harvard University with unprecedented access to energy efficiency opportunities. At the conclusion of the student internship, UOS agreed to implement this project in full over the coming years.

Environmental procurement: This internship looked at several goods purchased by University Operations Services to see if cost-effective, environmentally friendly alternatives exist. The internship involved assessing internal procurement practices, selecting high volume items and conducting market research to identify environmental preferred alternatives. The project found that by reusing printer cartridges instead of throwing them away, UOS could save 40 percent of the cost of buying new cartridges. That surplus could be applied to its copy paper purchases, which, for a small additional cost, could be switched to 100 percent recycled paper. Total cost savings between the two items would be about 10 percent. Surprising savings included a 50% cost savings for purchasing recycled plastic trash liners (saving over $15,000 a year for UOS alone). Other areas examined included lighting and organic landscaping.

This internship provided clear evidence that environmental procurement does not cost more – with good research and careful product selection. This internship was funded by UOS and has since been continued by the HGCI within another school at Harvard University.

High-performance buildings: This internship reviewed four construction and renovation projects on campus that attempted to implement the LEED standards over the past year. The projects included a large residential building, a large administrative and computer laboratory building, a large renovation for a school and two smaller residential renovations. The review enabled members of the university community to complete their first sustainable building learning cycle by generating significant recommendations that will be incorporated into the next batch of building and renovation projects in the long-term pursuit of truly sustainable building design at Harvard.

It is rare that university staff has the time to self reflect and learn from experience, and this internship provided an invaluable opportunity to do so. The internship was funded by Harvard Planning and Real Estate and the HGCI. Harvard Commercial and Residential Real Estate has since funded the continuation of this internship for the coming year.

Alternative fuel vehicles project: Three students were employed to examine Harvard’s vehicle fleet, evaluate associated environmental impacts, research alternative fuel vehicles and educate vehicle purchasers about vehicle options that would reduce greenhouse gas production. The project found that biodiesel fuel — made from soybeans and available for use in diesel engines — would reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by 70 percent. A trial of biodiesel is currently being established. For non-diesel vehicles, the project recommended switching to more fuel-efficient vehicles, electric vehicles, or to gas-electric hybrids. One long-term project also under investigation is a zero emission hydrogen fuel cell bus. This internship was funded by a grant secured by the HGCI from the Ford Foundation.

Computer energy reduction program: Two students and one part time manager were employed to run a feasibility study for computer energy reductions within our largest Faculty – the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. We found that almost 11 percent of the energy consumed by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences is used by computers, and that less than 60% of computer users are operating their computers efficiently. The project examined ways to reduce electricity consumption due to computers, and found that substantial savings could be realized by ensuring computers and monitors are turned off when not being used, and that sleep software is properly activated for all monitors.

The project recommended a targeted publicity campaign aimed at incoming freshmen, faculty and administration, which, if successful, could save as much as $390,000 in annual energy costs per annum. This internship project was funded by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the HGCI. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences has since agreed to fund the full implementation of this project.

Organic food: In response to student demand around reducing genetically modified foods and increasing organic produce, this internship examined organic food production, market availability, genetic food production and risk. The research highlighted the clear environmental benefits of organic food production and the ominous environmental risks of genetically modified organisms. An immediate result of this work has been the introduction of 11 new organic food items and one new organic pasta dish by Harvard University Dining Services. This internship was funded by Dining Services.

The Student Perspective
In addition to the real and potential benefits that participating administrative units and departments derived from the interns’ work, the interns themselves said they learned a lot from the experience.

“I think the internship greatly exceeded any expectations I had,” said Dan Olsen, who graduated from Colgate University in May 2000 and worked on the energy efficient opportuni ties project. “I’ve known this is a field I’d like to pursue as a lifetime goal.” This vision is now coming to fruition for Dan. His performance during his summer internship was so outstanding that he has been employed by the HGCI as the full time Environmental Loan Fund Coordinator.

One of the many positive impacts of the summer internship program has been the exposure of students to university staff and operations. Many of the students expressed positive surprise at the high levels of receptivity amongst university staff, while also gaining a heightened respect for the daily complexities and challenges they face. The students were equally quick to understand the value of linking academic mission with university operations. Amy Sheehan, a student at the Graduate School of Design who worked on the high-performance buildings project, said she was impressed with the School of Public Health’s renovation of space at 1 Landmark Center in Boston. The project, she said, involves many creative energy-saving changes and it incorporates “the idea that the academic mission of a department goes hand in hand with sustainable development.”

The students were often surprised to learn how much research they had to do on the university’s current practices. There is a pervasive assumption that universities already know what they purchase, how many computers they are using, how many and what type of cars are in the vehicle fleet, what pollution they produce, what kinds of paper are being purchased, who makes the decisions, etc. Some of this knowledge is available but most of it has to be collected for the first time. As part of their research, students were required to work directly with front line people to ensure that an alternative product or solution was not unworkable or inferior to current practice. That overall involvement is also critical to making permanent changes, Sharp noted.

Keys to Success
The internships often meet an unfilled need, as people in different departments are interested in how they can change their practices to become less wasteful or less polluting, but are often too busy with day-to-day tasks to investigate those options. As Harvard University strives to grow and expand at an unprecedented rate, the workload on staff can be overwhelming. The student internship program helped navigate this fundamental barrier to innovation.

Though the summer projects show there are many opportunities to make energy – and resource – saving changes at Harvard, they also show those changes won’t happen without broad reaching involvement, the right style of leadership and support from management, according to Sharp. The summer internship program was successful in part because so many schools and departments responded to the HGCI and agreed to make a small investment in employing students to help them explore more environmental alternatives to standard practice (each internship cost less than $6,000 for over three months of work).

Leadership and management support were also critical to the success of the program. The HGCI was present at the beginning, middle and end of the program, providing consistent leadership and taking responsibility for the ongoing effectiveness of the internships. But perhaps a more fundamental element of success was engaging project partners in a responsive and flexible dialogue to find the most effective balance of control and ownership for each project. Throughout the summer the HGCI focused on the question: What role can we take that will encourage the most participation, commitment and effective project management within the respective units? The HGCI found that each unit responded best to a different role, according to variations in management support for the project, political climate, historical experience with similar efforts, risk tolerance, rapport between the intern and unit staff, etc.

With some projects, the HGCI limited its role to interviewing and selecting students for the positions, and then leaving the units in complete control. With other projects the HGCI managed the entire work program, involving the respective units at key decision-making moments, while with others they stepped in and out at different points along the way to overcome barriers as they arose. Sharp and others found that the complexity of the university environment requires a fundamentally organic approach, responsive to the specific conditions of the local environment as they arise and change. In their experience, rationality appears to be more a luxury of hindsight than a real planning tool. What makes change is partnership, and what makes partnership is an effective dialogue of ownership, control and responsibility.

Although there are many positive aspects to the summer internship program, Sharp said, “the really important thing is that the internships allow Harvard to reflect on itself and learn from its own experiences. The students have shown us how universities can become good learning institutions as well as teaching and research institutions.” The program was so successful last summer that she hopes to institutionalize it this summer.

For more detailed project descriptions, see www.greencampus.harvard.edu.

Alvin Powell is on the Harvard University Gazette Staff.

Leith Sharp, an environmental engineer by training, is director of the Harvard Green Campus Initiative. From 1995-1999 Leith was the Environmental Project Manger at the University of New South Wales in Australia. She can be reached at Leith_Sharp @harvard.edu.

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