The Capital Partners Solar Project and other green initiatives have made GW a leader for sustainability in higher education.
By Kristen Mitchell
You can’t help but notice recycling bins, green buildings and urban garden when you walk through George Washington University’s Foggy Bottom campus. These signs mark the positive strides the university has taken to make the world a healthier place, said Meghan Chapple, director of the Office of Sustainability.
GW has aimed to increase the university’s sustainability efforts and was recently named to the 2017 list of “Cool Schools” by the Sierra Club. The environmental organization looked at more than 200 colleges and universities and evaluated them in areas including campus energy use, transportation, academics, food and innovation.
Ms. Chapple said GW’s Washington, D.C., location gives the university an opportunity to be a national leader on sustainability and climate change in an urban setting.
“From issues relating to climate change to loss of biodiversity to living sustainably on planet Earth, all of these issues have become a focus and an essential challenge for our time,” she said. “GW has a role in testing solutions to these challenges on our urban campus in downtown Washington and also in being a visible model and a leader in the country right now.”
GW was named to the No. 18 slot on the “Cool Schools” list. The recognition is intended to be a guide for prospective students, current students, administrators and alumni to compare colleges’ commitment to environmentalism, according to the Sierra Club. It serves to spur healthy competition among schools, raise environmental standards on campus and publicly reward institutions that work toward protecting the planet.
In line with the Sierra Club’s mission, the ranking heavily weighs a university’s operational impact on climate change and also takes into consideration other campus improvements, academics, research and student involvement.
Kathleen Merrigan, executive director of sustainability and leader of the GW Sustainability Collaborative, said it is easy to see the importance of sustainability when you are on a college campus.
“It’s hard to find a student who isn’t deeply concerned and passionate about climate change. Despite what is going on in this town and the retreat from the Paris Accord, young people know that climate is having adverse impacts today, and that things will only get worse over the course of their lifetimes,” she said. “They know things must change if the planet is going to really survive.”
Dr. Merrigan said the Sierra Club recognition is a great tribute to GW faculty and administrators who have worked to increase sustainability efforts at the university. But there is always more that can be done, she said.
“Our report cards are very good, but most important is our own self evaluation,” she said. “We know there is a lot of opportunity to do better and improve our systems and our scholarship.”
The Office of Sustainability will be issuing the university’s first progress report on its commitments to sustainability on campus and in the community this fall. The report will disclose GW’s progress since 2008 according to the Ecosystems Enhancement Strategy, which sets goals for sustainability in practice at GW. It will also provide a user-friendly map for green sites on GW’s three campuses.
Sustainability is one of GW’s core values. Under Dr. Merrigan, the Sustainability Collaborative brings together the many institutes and centers, hundreds of faculty and students, and dozens of local and national community partners. The collaborative recently launched a new website to highlight the research, education and engagement efforts going on at GW.
Earlier this year the university marked the one-year anniversary of full operation of the Capital Partners Solar Project, a renewable energy project led by the Office of Sustainability that has made GW 50 percent solar-powered. Through the agreement GW, George Washington University Hospital and American University generate renewable energy though 243,000 solar panels at three sites in North Carolina. Annually the project generates enough electricity to power the equivalent of 8,900 homes.
As part of the ChargedUp design competition, two interdisciplinary student teams are working with the GW Division of Operations to install solar charging stations on campus. Starting this fall, students will be able to charge their devices emissions free at Kogan Plaza and in the Academic Center walkway.
In 2015 the Duke Energy Renewables Innovation fund was established with seed funding from Duke Energy Renewables. It funds competitive grants to interdisciplinary GW faculty teams to conduct energy-related research. This year’s award was given to two researchers who are developing a method to transform carbon dioxide in the atmosphere into a material that can be used as a lightweight replacement for steel and cement composite.
The university also highlights sustainability through Planet Forward, an annual summit put on by the School of Media and Public Affairs’ Center for Innovative Media. The project was started by SMPA Director Frank Sesno in 2009 and teaches, celebrates and rewards environmental storytelling by college students.
GW has worked to provide students with a well-rounded sustainable education. In fall 2012, the university launched a sustainability minor for undergraduate students that attracts more than 150 students every year.
Ms. Chapple said teaching students about their environmental impact is an important part of sustainability education.
“It’s one thing to demonstrate how GW can improve our impact on the planet, but it’s even more impactful when students, faculty and staff take that experience into their lives beyond GW,” she said. “We see students learning about sustainability from their experience at GW, and applying it through their careers and their living habits when they leave campus and start a home of their own.”
Hannah Hickman, a fourth-year student majoring in environmental studies and political science, with a minor in sustainability, said working and interacting with people at GW who have made sustainability a priority has ignited her passion for the field. For three years, she has interned with the Office of Sustainability, and she serves as director of sustainability communications for the Student Association.
“Sustainability efforts are important to myself and other GW students because it directly impacts the future in which we will live and work,” she said. “If we don't care about sustainability efforts, we stand to live in a world where it won't be healthy or even possible to live in. These issues impact everyone, and we must care to ensure a healthy future for all.”
Ms. Chapple said she is thankful for university partnerships that have enabled sustainability to take root across the university.
“We’re really grateful for everyone’s support and help,” she said. “There are a lot of champions around GW.”