How Green is Your Campus?


By Alison Hewitt, Illustrations by Bryan Christie Design, Photos by James de Jauregui

Published Apr 1, 2009 8:05 AM

Long before anyone ever coined the environmental buzzwords that are now part of everyday language, UCLA was working toward a green future. Today, the sustainability pipeline is bulging with new initiatives large and small, from the university's first-ever Climate Action Plan all the way down to weekly, student-run delivery of locally farmed produce.

IT SOUNDS LIKE A FAMILIAR STORY: UCLA decided to go green by buying alternative-fuel vehicles. What makes it weird is that it happened in the late '80s. The campus started addressing pollutants back when "green" referred to money and a "carbon footprint" sounded more like a high-tech shoe sole. By 1993, UCLA had its own compressed-natural-gas station so the CNG fleet could fill 'er up. The next year, a new university co-generation plant — twice as efficient as most power plants — started supplying most of the campus' electricity and heat.

New fluorescent light bulbs here, a vanpool program there, and over the years, UCLA's environmental reach swelled. Between 1990 and 2000, the campus actually reversed its emissions, producing fewer pollutants at the turn of the millennium than it had a decade earlier, notes Jack Powazek '72, M.B.A. '74, Ed.D. '01, associate vice chancellor for general services.

Even Greener

The Lazy Environmentalist: A dozen easy ways to go smugly sustainable.

Be a Part of the Plan: Watch a video about UCLA's new Climate Action Plan, find out how you can help and hear podcasts on eco-efforts at UCLA's Sustainability Committee site.

Video Extra: UCLA Sustainability Coordinator Nurit Katz gives the four-minute low down on what's up on campus.


Today: La Kretz Hall, UCLA's first federally certified green building, built in 2005.

Tomorrow: The campus will get a complete eco-makeover over the next few years.

"Even though the square footage of buildings on campus grew by 34 percent between 1990 and 2007, including building energy-intensive buildings like labs and the new hospital, emissions rose less than 0.1 percent, thanks to all our initiatives," Powazek says. "We have accomplished a great deal, but there's more to do. We're going to ask for everyone's assistance in how they use energy, how they commute, how they recycle."

Saving the planet only gradually became the focus, adds Cully Nordby, chair of the campus' Sustainability Committee and academic director of UCLA's Institute of the Environment.

"Initially, it wasn't entirely about greenhouse gas emissions, it was about saving energy and saving money," Nordby explains. "Now it's clear that all of that has a heightened importance because of global climate change."

That awareness has led to a flood of sustainability-oriented programs scattered across campus: Students support local farming by getting fresh produce delivered weekly; researchers get tips from a roving lab team on making energy-hog labs more efficient; Bruins eat their organic salads with biodegradable corn utensils instead of indestructible plastic sporks; and frat boys and sorority girls battle it out in a "Green the Greeks" competition. The profusion of programs led UCLA to hire its first sustainability coordinator, Nurit Katz M.B.A. and M.P.P. '08. Katz will organize the tangle of programs, guided by another first — the campus' new Climate Action Plan.

What's the Plan?: Tip of the CAP

The Climate Action Plan envisions a UCLA where Styrofoam and one-use plastic water bottles have vanished, and solar panels grace the roofs of as-yet-unselected campus buildings. UC and state agreements required each UC campus to outline precisely how they will cut their current emissions back to 2000 levels by 2014, then to 1990 levels by 2020 — and UCLA plans to meet the 2020 goals eight years early.

By 2020, UCLA will achieve the equivalent of taking 12,000 smog-belching cars off the road each year. Much of the $30-million effort happens behind the scenes, including massive heating, air conditioning and ventilation retrofits that compare to taking more than 7,000 cars off the road. Most of the CAP projects will pay for themselves in less than five years, thanks to power-bill savings, says Powazek.

The CAP also highlights the gee-whiz factor of some of the university's earlier forays into green terrain. On the transportation side, UCLA's technological leaps into the future have made tailpipe emissions look like a blast from the past. Pollutants from commuting employees, cross-town students, campus shuttles and air travel are already below 1990 levels.

Another feather in the CAP is the co-generation plant.

Jet Power: The Co-gen Plant

Several UC campuses have a co-generation plant, but UCLA's is among the largest, says David Johnson, director of energy services and utilities in Facilities Management. Built in 1994, the co-gen plant is a multitasking monster, generating 70 percent of the campus' power, all of its steam for heating and a hefty helping of the cold air needed for air conditioning. It all starts with a pair of jet engines.

"We generate energy with a pair of gas turbines, which you would call a jet engine," Johnson explains. "We burn gas in the jet engines, producing a stream of hot gas that drives a turbine that spins an electric generator, producing electricity."

The blazing heat doesn't go to waste. A heat-recovery steam generator uses the 1,000-degree jet-engine exhaust to generate steam, some of which is used to generate electricity. It doesn't end there. Part of the steam is sent across campus for heating, cooking and sterilization; the rest powers high-capacity water chillers making cold water for air conditioning. On top of it all, the co-gen's electricity is cheaper and more efficiently produced than what UCLA could buy.

"Even if electricity cost the same, we'd still be coming out ahead because it's like the waste heat and steam and the chilled water are free," Johnson says. For the green icing on the sustainable cake, 7 percent of the natural gas that powers the jet engines is collected from a closed city landfill in Los Angeles' Sepulveda Pass — waste gas the city once burned.