Report highlights sustainability efforts at Penn State

May 15, 2009

University Park, Pa. — Some of the many ways that Penn State is responding to the challenge of sustainability and serving as a national leader within higher education were highlighted Friday (May 15) in an informational report to the University's Board of Trustees.

"It is fair to say that no topic of global concern resonates with our students more profoundly than the environment," said Damon Sims, vice president for Student Affairs. "Sustainability is a key element in any response to this global crisis because it is apparent that we must first find ways to meet the needs of our generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Penn State is among the handful of universities setting the standard in sustainability that others will follow."

A panel briefed the board on numerous sustainability goals, endeavors and research.


Among the broadest research efforts in sustainability, the Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment (PSIEE) is the central coordinating structure for energy and environmental research at Penn State, said Tom Richard, professor of agricultural engineering and PSIEE director.

PSIEE co-sponsors interdisciplinary majors and facilitates the research of about 500 faculty conducting more than $120 million in research annually. Richard noted that the wide range of research — from environmental toxicology to solar photovoltaic materials — takes place in a unique organizational structure that is viewed as a model for interdisciplinary research nationwide.

The breadth and depth of the colleges at Penn State include multiple centers of excellence focusing on specific topics in sustainability.  Four colleges have full institutes, which, among other endeavors, hold important national conferences on the impact of climate change, and include faculty who were part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a Nobel prize winning team.

PSIEE also co-hires faculty who explore new frontiers outside disciplinary bounds. PSIEE supports interdisciplinary programs at multiple campuses.

In addition to a new energy initiative at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, PSIEE also has a new endeavor in Pittsburgh with the BioEnergy Bridge, a university-industry-public partnership to address the basic science and sustainability issues of biomass energy systems, Richard explained. A $21 million Department of Energy Center was funded recently at Penn State in this area.


Penn State has made great strides in moving toward sustainable business practices, said Steve Maruszewski, associate vice president of the Office of Physical Plant (OPP), who cited the first successful step as developing strong collaborations and partnerships across the University.

The University's business operations collaborate with researchers in a number of areas, including small-scale fuel cell implementation at the wastewater treatment plant and a highly successful composting operation. One project collects cooking oils on campus to use in bio-fuel for campus service vehicles.

"In all cases, by implementing this research in our facilities, we add technical and practical expertise to the research and gain the operational savings associated with new technology," Maruszewski said.

The Office of Finance and Business also has partnered with students to assist in determining the environmental impact and appropriate selection of electric fleet vehicles, janitorial paper products and alternatives for bottled water. The University has developed strategic alliances with vendors to close the loop on the waste stream associated with their products.

Among the tangible successes so far, the University has achieved a total waste-recycling rate of more than 53 percent, instituted environmental risk mitigation strategies throughout the campuses and increased public transportation, alternative fuel vehicles and bio-diesel use in campus service vehicles. Additionally, campus planning and design supports more efficient transportation strategies, and all new buildings are required to be LEED-certified to ensure they are more energy efficient and responsible by design, Maruszewski said.

Despite an increase in new facilities and the potential for more electrical demand among students, overall gas, water and electric consumption have decreased since 2004, an important environmental and economic benefit as utility costs increase.

As the first University selected by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to join its sustainability partnership program, Penn State Outreach is working with OPP to disseminate the sustainability practices developed by OPP through training modules, videos and conferences, said Nancy Franklin, director of strategic initiatives for Outreach and leader of the Energy and Environment Task Force.

Among many efforts that span Outreach, the Office of Economic and Workforce Development’s PennTAP group conducted nearly 500 pollution prevention and energy efficiency technical assistance visits to businesses during the past year, resulting in $11.5 million of client-reported economic benefits, Franklin said.

Other energy and environment outreach work by Penn State, Franklin said, includes programs to educate homeowners about energy conservation, energy management tools for local governments and a forum for developers of energy products to network with businesses interested in exploring partnerships.

Franklin added that some of the most exciting environmental work involves integration of outreach, research, student learning and campus operations. This includes bringing together environmental and social science researchers, extension educators and a wide range of local stakeholders in the Chesapeake Bay area to focus on merging innovative technologies and practices associated with the Bay.

Student Research

The Center for Sustainability at Penn State seeks ways to integrate practices of sustainability in curricula, said David Riley, center director.

Hands-on service learning opportunities at the center resulted in early experimental structures that have been expanded to full-scale green buildings through the American Indian Housing Initiative, which in turn laid the groundwork for the Penn State Solar Decathlon team in 2007 and construction of solar homes at Penn State and in Montana.

This year the center piloted a new service-learning course that helped to install a solar array on a school in Honduras and created an opportunity for Honduran electricians to learn about solar energy systems.

"These types of experiences tend to attract the interest of a diverse set of students …  who are seeking to contribute to an important cause," Riley said.

Riley added that the center is seeking to expand its impact through development of its nine-acre site as a lab and place of learning. Its latest and most ambitious effort is the development of the National Energy Leadership Corps, a service program to train students in any discipline as credentialed assessors who can advise homeowners on the best actions to improve household energy efficiency.

  • MorningStar, the Penn State Solar Decathlon team's 2007 entry into the national solar home competition, grew out of work done at the Center for Sustainability.

    IMAGE: Greg Grieco

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated November 18, 2010