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Editor's Note

Sustainable Stories

University Business, Jun 2009

SOMETIMES WORDS AND PHRASES CAN trigger images that we use to define things. For example, when I hear the word “sustainable” it often brings to mind a trip I took some years ago. I was among a group of people touring one of the largest working dairy farms in western Connecticut.

We had already seen vast grain fields and numerous cows, and a demonstration of the milking machines. Our guide had explained how pasteurization and homogenization worked and showed us the gleaming stainless steel tanks where those processes took place.

Then he led the way to a nondescript Quonset hut that he was particularly eager to show us.

Inside were two parallel, walled flat beds, perhaps 20 feet long and eight feet wide. One was empty, but the other was covered with a rubber membrane that, oddly, had inflated like a balloon.

The guide explained that the flat bed was filled with animal droppings, and the rubber membrane was being inflated by methane gas — a by-product of the manure.

The machines we had seen earlier were powered by generators, which were fueled by gas, produced from the waste, that came from the cows, who fed on the grain, that grew on the farm that Jack built — or whatever the farmer’s name was. This farm produced its own energy.

It was a great example of sustainability in action. The plus was that the methane—which is classified as a greenhouse gas — wasn’t being vented into the atmosphere.

Our guide told us that similar techniques had been used for years in developing countries, where the collected methane gas from animal waste was used to fuel food cookers.

I’ve learned since that a number of higher education institutions, such as the University of Minnesota and the University of Missouri, are also researching the use of animal waste to produce an alternative to fossil fuels.

Other universities are experimenting with wind power. In fact, last month, the University of Oklahoma announced an alternative energy partnership with Oklahoma Gas and Electric that will lead the school to be powered entirely by wind energy by 2013.

“This is a day in which history is being made,” OU President David Boren said in a recent statement. “We intend to be a role model and a leader in energy independence for this country. We’re ready to do it.”

Arizona State University, located in a state that boasts 310 days of sunshine a year, has taken advantage of that natural resource to build the largest solar power infrastructure of any university in the country. Solar panels erected on the rooftops of buildings at ASU’s Tempe campus will eventually provide as much as 20 percent of the campus’s energy requirements and save ASU about $425,000 in energy costs.

Sustainability isn’t just about energy, of course. The widely accepted definition of the term, crafted 20 years ago by the World Commission on Environment and Development, is “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

In this issue, our fourth annual “green report,” you’ll learn how colleges and universities across the country are doing just that — even in a tough economy. They are finding ways to reduce their carbon footprint, preserve the environment, and ensure that the resources on which they depend will still be around for those future generations. We invite you to share your stories with us.


Write to Tim Goral at