The Emory University Senate voted in 2017 to endorse a resolution that set the Emory Student Center’s (ESC) net-zero deadline at the end of 2022. Meeting this standard entails using renewable energy sources to cut carbon emissions to as close to zero as possible and offsetting greenhouse gas emissions from nonrenewable energy sources.

Currently, only 15% of the energy utilized by the student center is sustainable, according to Vice President and Chief Planning Officer of Campus Services Robin Morey. Morey wrote in an email to the Wheel that “unprecedented events related to the COVID-19 pandemic” impeded the University’s ability to reach their net-zero goal by the end of last year.

History of the Emory Student Center

The ESC’s energy demands have increased since its inception. In 2017, Emory reported that the ESC was designed to run at 65 thousand British thermal units (kBtu), according to Morey. However, Assistant Teaching Professor of Environmental Science Carolyn Keogh said that the building is actually running at 146 kBtu, a figure more than twice as large.

“The actual energy usage of the building is so much higher than was forecasted,” Emory Climate Coalition co-President Jack Miklaucic (23C) said. “That is very worrying, because as we were told by campus services … it is so much easier to build buildings sustainably from the get-go than it is to retrofit for sustainability.”

In a presentation to the University Senate meeting on Jan. 27, Keogh said that the student center would require 2,600 kilowatts of solar photovoltaic cells — equivalent to about six acres of solar panels — to lower the student center’s energy usage by 68 kBtu. This would cost the University about $3 million, a number that is likely to increase with energy demand and inflation, Keogh said.

Design and construction changes, greater-than-anticipated food service demands, increased usage hours and operational and maintenance issues caused the student center’s energy increases, according to Keogh.

“The operational hours of the building are higher than originally intended and have contributed to the need for added energy control measures,” Morey wrote.

The ESC is a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) designed building and requires additional efforts to reach net zero, which are currently underway. LEED is a voluntary rating system created by the U.S. Green Building Council in 1998 to score and certify the sustainability of new and planned buildings and their surroundings. Within the LEED system, there are four levels of certification. The “Platinum” tier, which the ESC falls under, is the highest-ranking certification. This level requires that a building satisfies most of LEED’s sustainable guidelines in categories, such as Sensitive Land Protection, Sourcing of Raw Materials and Enhanced Indoor Air Quality Strategies.

However, LEED “is out of date” and has been for a long time, according to Miklaucic.

“Its standards were created decades ago and we haven’t really made any progress since then,” Miklaucic added.

The LEED rating system was established in 1998. In recent years, the rating system has received criticism for consuming more energy than buildings without certification and having “little to no effect.”

Natalie Sturza (26C) is a sustainability minor currently conducting a project on the sustainability of the ESC for her Foundations of Sustainability course. Sturza said that her expectations for the building did not align with its reality. Because Sturza believes the University has an “incredible” commitment to sustainability and becoming carbon neutral within a set and upcoming deadline, she said she thought the ESC would be a “pinnacle of sustainability in the United States.”

“Given my expectations and the fact that Emory is rated as, at the moment, [in] the top 25 most sustainable research universities in the United States, I expected that the ESC was going to be an example of a sustainable system,” Sturza said. “I learned that in the end it’s not as impressive as it essentially claimed it is.”

The ESC requires additional efforts to reach net zero, which are currently underway. (Jessie Satovsky/Staff Illustrator)

The ESC’s sustainable practices

Currently, the student center’s most prominent source of renewable energy is its geothermal well system. Located an average of 400 feet below the ground, the 65 geothermal wells drilled into McDonough Field provide approximately 700 tons of heating or cooling capacity. As of 2018, these wells contributed to 38% of cooling demand and 25% of heating demand for the building and “drastically” reduced fossil fuel usage.

The 32 solar panels lining the student center’s roof provide about 40% of the energy needed to preheat drinking water for the building. In an effort to reduce overall energy usage, the ESC also installed a computerized system in 2018 that turns off lighting and heating in unused rooms and switches the ventilation and air conditioning system into an “unoccupied” mode. 

High-efficiency glass, which are coated with various metals that reduce excessive absorption of heat, was also installed on both the south and west sides of the ESC, lowering the building’s overall energy cost. If sunlight illuminates an indoor space, sensors in the high-efficiency windows tell the lights to automatically turn off, according to Campus Services Senior Program Manager Al Herzog.

Additionally, 100% LED lighting, chilled beams, displacement air systems and energy recovery units were installed to further reduce the ESC’s carbon footprint. Food trays in Dobbs Common Table were eliminated to reduce food waste, energy and water use. 

Future plans to hit net zero

Campus services recently hired a new sustainability engineer, Taylor Sparacello, and energy analyst Justin Thomas, who serves on the Committee on the Environment for the University Senate.

As a sustainability engineer, Sparacello wrote in an email to the Wheel that she “provide[s] leadership and direction” in energy and sustainability project strategy. Sparacello is assisting the University in the goals outlined in Emory’s Sustainability Vision and Strategic Plan 2025

Emory’s 2025 Sustainability Vision includes a commitment for all new construction on campus to be carbon neutral by 2025, and to achieve overall net-zero emissions by 2050. Additionally, the vision calls for a 50% reduction in energy use per square foot and a 25% reduction in overall energy use from a 2015 baseline. The University has reduced its total energy use by 14.1% since 2015 and renewably generated 1.5% of the campus’s total electricity in 2021.

“Right now, we are working really hard to reduce the energy use in the student center as much as possible,” she wrote. “You all may not be able to see the initiatives directly, but I promise good things are happening in the student center.”

Sparacello also mentioned other initiatives the University is currently working toward, including getting some other buildings on campus to net zero, as well as smaller energy conservation measures in lab and classroom spaces.

Morey said that the University is actively developing a plan to meet the net-zero goal.

A conceptual net-zero design for the ESC consisting of numerous energy control measures has been completed and we are actively working to implement a plan to achieve the University’s original goal,” Morey said. “Cost, schedules and resources to accomplish this work are currently being identified.”

Both Miklaucic and Keogh expressed concern over the role of the University Senate with regard to this particular resolution.

“The University Senate is an advisory body … it interfaces with the President and Board of Trustees in the Provost Office and its role is just to, you know, make suggestions,” Keogh said. “And it doesn’t have any teeth, in the sense of public opinion. But it can’t say, ‘We made this ruling, you have to follow it.’”

Keogh expressed that the student center resolution came too late to ensure that Emory administration had enough time to make the student center completely net zero by 2022.

“I love that there’s a resolution that set this goal for the University to do better on this building, but I’m also like, ‘Oh, I wish it was a little bit earlier,’” Keogh said.

Miklaucic also expressed concern for the consequences of the University Senate remaining strictly an advisory body with regard to the environment.  

“One of the questions that we’ve been asking of the University Senate itself is, it’s an advisory body, it doesn’t necessarily have a ton of power, but what are the consequences when this doesn’t happen?” Miklaucic said. “And if those consequences aren’t clearly delineated, what is stopping lots of campus actors from continuing to violate these resolutions?”

Keogh, however, expressed confidence about the future of sustainability at Emory.

“I’m confident that these new people and the people who are already thinking about this … have got something in the works,” Keogh said.

Campus Services engineers Chris Fox and Rob Manchester did not respond by press time.

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