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Green Idea! It Might Just Work

By By Siobhan Paganelli, A&S '08
Illustrations by Roger Chouinard

Author Paul Hawken spent years researching environmental activism and reached some striking conclusions in his 2007 book, Blessed Unrest. The environmental movement, Hawken believes, is the largest social movement in human history, and it has been a bottom-up phenomenon — not a mass response to charismatic leaders or ideology or top-down direction, but simply people taking it upon themselves to do what they can as local agents for change.

At Johns Hopkins, there is a serious, top-down commitment to becoming a green institution. There is a sustainability initiative and a sustainability committee and a president's task force. Reshaping Hopkins will take that kind of formal study, institutional coordination, and commitment of major resources. But meanwhile individuals, including students, have begun to act on their own. Collected here are five stories of Hopkins students and their contributions to a greener Hopkins and a healthier world.


As president of Engineers for a Sustainable World (ESW) and a member of the Hopkins Energy Action Team (HEAT), Alex Teran, Engr '08, was always looking for ways to connect his two biggest interests: engineering and the environment. Last year, he and other ESW members had the idea of putting to use the 2,500 gallons of waste vegetable oil (WVO) Homewood's cafeterias generate each year. Hopkins spends $750 annually to dispose of the oil, which can be refined to power diesel vehicles. The group wanted to develop a plan to use converted WVO in the university's fleet.

But there were problems. For one, the university doesn't have that many diesel vehicles, so there wasn't much demand for biodiesel. And the complicated process of converting vegetable oil to fuel requires sensitive chemical handling because it involves methanol and lye.

Teran was undeterred. Through conversations with Davis Bookhart, Hopkins' environmental stewardship manager and chair of the university's Sustainability Committee, he formed a new idea. Instead of converting WVO to biodiesel, why not put it directly to work? Some background research suggested that the oil could be used in a specialized boiler for heating hot water, and that such a boiler easily could be installed in the university's existing system. Bookhart liked the idea because it involved a one-time addition of new equipment, not a long-term commitment to a biofuels refining process.

That's when the Green Idea Generator came into the picture. The Sustainability Initiative created this process to identify student sustainability plans that could be carried out within an academic year. Students would be matched with faculty and professional advisers to make sure the projects got off the ground. At a November event, 16 students pitched ideas, then selected three that they thought were best, Teran's among them. (The others were a green roof project for Homewood's Mattin Center and a paper-reduction campaign.)

Energy added by WVO would lower the boiler's overall gas energy consumption enough to decrease carbon dioxide emissions by 20 tons annually. With Bookhart as his faculty adviser and local engineer Jack Ross as his professional adviser, Teran refined the idea. They designed a special WVO boiler to pre-heat incoming water before it reached the primary gas-burning boilers. Any energy added by WVO would displace the energy required from natural gas, thus lowering the boiler's overall gas energy consumption enough to decrease carbon dioxide emissions by 20 tons annually. The system could run on however much WVO was available; if the pre-heater ran short of vegetable oil, the water would simply pass through to the primary boiler. Teran thought the gas boiler at the Homewood campus's Wyman complex would be ideal for the WVO pre-heater because waste oil from campus cafeterias — Fresh Foods Café, Levering, and Nolan's — could be had just across the quad.

The next challenge: how to pay for the new equipment, which would cost up to $40,000. Though the Green Idea Generator provides advisers and publicity, it doesn't supply cash. So Ross donated $25,000; additional funding will come from alumni donations, and potentially from a new funding mechanism developed by Teran's younger brother, Daniel, a sophomore in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. Called the Sustainable Hopkins Infrastructure Program (SHIP), it will fund mid-size projects like Alex's if students can prove to a board, composed of students and faculty, that the cost of the project will be returned to the university in savings of water, energy, or other resources. SHIP is set to begin operating this month.

Local electric car company Clean Cities/AutoFlex has pledged to donate a vehicle for students to transport the WVO. If the project expands, students will be able to collect waste oil from Charles Village eateries. The pre-heater is designed to take more than five times the 2,500 gallons the students expect to receive from Hopkins.

The finished boiler will fire up by the end of the year, just in time for the winter heating season. Teran is now pursuing his PhD in chemical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. "I've always been interested in sustainability and alternative energy," he says. "I figure eventually, with enough student support, Hopkins will catch on."


Karen Gosnell and Karen Price-Ward had been pursuing MBAs for four and six years, respectively, when they received their capstone project assignments last September. William Keating Jr., one of the Carey Business School practitioner faculty, announced that for their projects, student teams would compete to create new business strategies for Baltimore-based Constellation Energy. And those strategies had to be green.

No one on the team — Gosnell, a deputy managing executive of the business and communications services department at the Applied Physics Laboratory; Price-Ward, a corporate community affairs manager for Southwest Airlines; O Wang, a senior hardware engineer at Hughes Network Systems; and Amy Inglesby, an account supervisor for Crosby Marketing Communications — was environmentally savvy. Nonetheless, they plunged into analysis of Constellation, searching for a problem they could solve in the three months allotted for the project.

"Wrapping our arms around the energy industry was really challenging," says Price-Ward. "We were looking at so many different components — government relations, regulations, competition — and trying to dissect all of the information and look at it from an external standpoint."

Maryland has strict regulations requiring energy companies to derive a stipulated percentage of their energy production from renewable sources. Of the myriad issues Constellation faced, including strained governmental relations and consumer pressure, what seemed to be causing it the most pain, says Gosnell, were forthcoming fines, upward of $30 million, if the company didn't increase its use of renewable energy. The team wanted to find a way for Constellation to use green energy, fast.

"After all our exhaustion one night," says Gosnell, "we came up with chicken poop."

Manure is abundant on Maryland's Eastern Shore, polluting the Chesapeake Bay from the region's many poultry factory farms. "We thought, maybe there's a way to turn poop into fuel," says Price-Ward. Sure enough, she and Gosnell found examples in North Carolina and Minnesota of pig and turkey manure being cleaned and used as fuel. Coal plants, they found, can be converted to burn coal with other fuels — in this case, manure. A co-firing plant, as such a facility is called, would be particularly beneficial in Maryland, where air pollution from the state's many coal plants is a growing problem. Better yet, when Gosnell compared the costs of other renewable energy sources, such as solar or wind, she found co-firing cost the least. Poultry companies, under pressure to lessen pollution from manure in the bay, would benefit from a local co-firing plant, too. Perdue, the team suggested, could make a good partner by supplying the necessary "fuel."

The team scrambled to put together a convincing final presentation to representatives from Constellation and the Carey School. They called their proposal POOP, for Pockets of Opportunity and Partnership. Their plan, they explained, would unite the poultry and energy industries to solve two pollution problems at once. "We have a lot of poultry production on the Eastern Shore that's affecting the health of the bay, so we just kind of put the two together, half-jokingly at first," says Gosnell. "What seemed to be a silly idea turned out to be a viable option."

Ultimately, another team won first place in the competition. But five months later, Constellation called back; the project, they said, was interesting enough to warrant passing along to Perdue. For the students, that made it a success. "I think we valued this project more than others because we're all stakeholders," says Gosnell. "It was something that we could all benefit from."


Teryn Norris cannot talk for more than a few minutes without bringing up the environment. Since high school he has been involved with groups like the Sierra Club and Environment California, where he worked on an advocacy campaign for the California Global Warming Solutions Act. So when the Breakthrough Institute, a progressive politics think tank based in California, offered the 20-year-old an opportunity to work on an energy policy initiative in Washington, D.C., he put on hold the second half of his sophomore year at the Krieger School and took the job.

Last January, he became founding director of Breakthrough Generation, the institute's youth leaders initiative, which campaigns for a new economy based on clean energy. The job grew out of Norris' work during a 2007 summer fellowship with the institute. With founders Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, he co-authored "Fast, Clean, Cheap: Cutting Global Warming's Gordian Knot," a white paper on U.S. federal energy policy. The report appeared in the winter 2008 edition of Harvard Law and Policy Review, a graduate student-run journal published by the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy at Harvard Law School. "Fast, Clean, Cheap" made an extended case for large-scale federal investment in new, clean energy technologies. In the report's conclusion, the authors wrote: "The energy challenge has been framed thus far as a forced choice between poverty and environmental ruin. With a choice like that, it is no surprise that the world has failed to make real strides towards a cleaner energy future. Global warming and energy independence are new challenges that require new ways of thinking. The outmoded regulation-centered approach, which seeks to curb pollution by merely imposing costs on polluters, is inadequate to deal with this new challenge."

After taking notice of Norris' work as a research fellow, Shellenberger and Nordhaus offered him the job of directing Breakthrough Generation. Instead of studying political science and economics at Hopkins, he spent the spring semester developing and promoting Breakthrough's fellowship program, posting on the institute's blogs, and sifting through the hundreds of applications he received from students hoping to land one of the coveted fellowships. Plus, he did research on developing climate change science and policy, and tracked bills in Congress. If any major bills or political actions arose, Norris dissected them for readers.

This past summer found Norris in Oakland, working as associate director of Breakthrough Generation's fellowship program. "We've got a lot of great minds and a lot of manpower," says Norris, who put the Breakthrough fellows to work expanding the institute's technology policy and developing political strategy for the youth movement. Under his direction, Breakthrough Generation launched the IN Campaign, to train young leaders and organizers to generate support for new public investment in energy education and additional research at universities.

Norris has returned to Hopkins for the fall semester, and resumed his role as the only student representative on President William R. Brody's Climate Change Task Force.


Like most students in the School of Medicine, Rebecca Brose doesn't have a lot of free time. Between lab work, rounds, and other obligations, her schedule is packed. So in 2006, when Brose and fellow students Dan Lee and Matt Boesma decided to form a group devoted to improving recycling and sustainability initiatives on the medical campus, they knew they'd need some help. They recruited about 20 other medical and graduate students to join, named the new group LIFE (Leadership Initiative For the Environment), and started making calls.

To get going, the group made an appointment with Richard Sebour, the medical school's associate director of building operations, to learn how they could help the school's existing recycling program. What Sebour needed most was some word-of-mouth advertising on campus about the program, and some feedback about how it might become more user-friendly. LIFE immediately began posting fliers promoting recycling and offering input on where bins should be placed for optimal usage.

In return, Sebour offered a critical element that LIFE had been missing: funding. The Graduate Student Association (GSA) offered some money, but it wasn't nearly enough to cover the events and projects LIFE had in mind. Sebour recognized that the project would help the facilities department meet its sustainability aims, and approved funding for the initiative.

In April 2007, LIFE organized an Earth Day event, calling on local environmental groups and community members to come together for a happy hour (with reusable cups) and information fair. Maryland's Sierra Club chapter and the Chesapeake Climate Action Network were among the groups with information booths. Attendees, who numbered more than 500, brought in old electronic equipment, printer cartridges, and batteries to be recycled. Each recycled item earned one raffle ticket for prizes donated by MedTrace, the university's biohazard waste management group, and local businesses. The event was such a hit, in 2008 it had to be moved out of the Preclinical Teaching Building's Greenhouse Cafeteria to the larger Turner Auditorium. Both years, more than 1,000 pounds of equipment were collected and recycled.

Earlier this year, LIFE created the Greener Labs Campaign, a publicity project designed to encourage faculty to educate students and lab personnel about environmentally friendly laboratory practices, such as recycling pipette tip boxes, cutting back on the use of distilled water, and simple actions such as turning computers off at night and printing double-sided reports. Sebour green-lighted the idea, giving LIFE the funds to produce 1,000 magnets that listed "Ten Ways to Make Your Lab Greener" and plastic-sleeved versions of the same list that could be hung in labs.

Besides providing money, the facilities department works with LIFE to decide how best to publicize recycling and greening opportunities on campus, and which problems to tackle next, says Brose. In turn, LIFE's members put in their share of the legwork, sending e-mails and generating publicity through fliers, campus television advertisements, and articles in campus newsletters. They see themselves as the facilities department's voice. Davis Bookhart notes that this is unusual. At most universities, he says, there is a divide between the academic and operations sides: "They hardly ever cross over. Most people [on operations staffs] never even see a student."

Since LIFE began working with it, Facilities Management has vastly expanded its recycling program, says Brose. "We've made the campus more aware of what JHMI Facilities is doing to help the university reduce its impact on the environment," she says. "I think that has been one of our greatest impacts."


Kathryn Berndtson, a master of health science candidate in the Bloomberg School of Public Health, recently spent a lot of time trying to answer some questions. How did the school consume enough electricity to be responsible for 25,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions last year? How could so many educated, socially aware faculty, staff, and students be so excessive in their energy consumption?

Her quest began when she and three other Bloomberg students — Julia White, Sean Baird, and Becky Stepnitz — did a case study for a two-semester course combining ethnographic field work and qualitative data analysis. The team was free to choose its subject. The students wanted to do something related to the environment and promoting responsible energy consumption. For her part of the project, Berndtson decided to examine why the Bloomberg School used so much power. Over eight weeks, the team conducted focus groups and interviews, observed lab work, and dug through the school's archives. Berndtson spoke with lab-science students, staff, and faculty to learn how their habits and perceptions affected their energy use. The results, she hoped, would "offer insight into barriers to energy efficiency."

Data from focus groups and interviews led her to observe a fundamental conflict between doing science and conserving energy. One major drain, she found, was the electricity used to heat, cool, and light the school's building 24 hours a day, every day of the year. The school does not set lab hours; students and researchers can come in and work whenever they want. Security staff, too, work round-the-clock. Likewise, many of the lab's appliances — freezers, baths, insectaries, other lab tools — are always on. Some, like freezers and insectaries, have to run constantly. Others, like the water baths used to heat or cool beakers containing samples, do not but are turned on and off frequently and are rarely unplugged. Berndtson and her group also collected data that suggest the school errs on the side of caution when it categorizes almost all of its trash as biohazard waste, which means a lengthier, energy-consuming disposal process.

Students interviewed knew they weren't using energy efficiently but felt it was a necessary evil, an unavoidable consequence of science. Students interviewed knew they weren't using energy efficiently, says Berndtson, but felt it was a necessary evil, an unavoidable consequence of science. "I don't think the demand [for 24-hour access] is huge," one administrator told her, but added that limiting access wasn't an option. Some experiments require constant attention, and students like having the freedom to work anytime. "You never know when you're going to use [an appliance]," one student said. "So it might as well be warmed up and ready, because you don't want to wait. It throws off your whole schedule." Berndtson found that first-year PhD students preferred to use equipment after hours, when there was no need to compete with post-doctoral fellows. In her report, Berndtson wrote, "Repeatedly, participants stated that convenience was more important to them than saving energy — even if 24-hour access was not always needed to guarantee scientific outcomes, participants enjoyed the flexibility in scheduling that it allowed them."

Berndtson noted the divergence of attitudes in students' personal and academic lives. They reported conserving energy at home, but never at the lab. Faculty, too, admitted to conserving less than they could. "We all talk about conservation," said one professor. "But at the end of a faculty meeting, everyone puts their garbage [including recyclables] right in the trash can."

In 2007, the Bloomberg School replaced 30,000 incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent lamps. That action alone resulted in a 2 percent to 3 percent reduction, equivalent to 890 metric tons of carbon dioxide, according to an unpublished audit by the Bloomberg School's Center for a Livable Future. But the next steps, says Berndtson, will be much more difficult, requiring behavioral changes by students and faculty.

"We have great aspirations," said a support services administrator quoted in Berndtson's report. "But when you start targeting student or faculty time, you need to go for small wins." Mandating set hours or temperatures in the building, the administrator said, would risk loss of students and faculty who value constant access to labs and other amenities. What's more, the Bloomberg School accounts for only 7 percent of the total energy consumed by the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. This limits its influence on decisions made by the LLC that buys power for JHMI.

Katherine Fritz, adjunct assistant professor in Bloomberg's Department of International Health, was one of the faculty members guiding the project (the other was Lori Leonard, associate professor in the Department of Health, Behavior, and Society). Fritz says the group's research could be expanded to collect enough data to influence Hopkins policies. The study, she says, reflects "a burgeoning interest among students in the links between health, public health, and sustainability." Fritz finds it gratifying to see students making connections between the environment and public health. "We encourage it, for sure," she says. "But the students are leading the way."

When she returned from summer travels, Berndtson planned to share the findings with the school's environmental stewardship committee. She hopes to trigger a new study that would articulate the long-term financial benefits of greater energy efficiency in Bloomberg's labs. "I think if people actually had those numbers in their hands," she says, "they might just do something."

Siobhan Paganelli, A&S '08, was Johns Hopkins Magazine's spring 2008 Corbin Gwaltney Fellow.

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