Photo By Zach Maher

Aryn Sanderson
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With 9,678 acres of land, 5.8 million square feet of buildings and a population of more than 20,000, Cal Poly is practically its own small city. And, like any city in today’s changing world, going green is the key to continued growth.

Sustainability is integral to Cal Poly’s campus, Assistant Director of Energy, Utilities and Sustainability Dennis Elliot said.

“What’s unique about sustainability at Cal Poly is how closely it dovetails what we teach as a Polytechnic University,” Elliot said.

Cal Poly has won 20 sustainability awards in a variety of categories since the California Higher Education Sustainability Conference competition was launched in 2005.

Building the future

Particularly in recent building projects, Cal Poly demonstrates an emphasis on sustainability.

The brand new Warren J. Baker Center for Science and Mathematics is 108 feet tall and has enough wire to stretch from San Luis Obispo to Los Angeles.

To make such a large project sustainable, the center will feature roof gardens, rainwater harvesting, energy efficient lighting and high-efficiency plumbing, among other green practices.

For example, sensors will detect the amount of CO2 in some of the rooms and condition it appropriately.

“This is really useful for buildings with rooms that are packed like sardines one hour and empty the next,” Elliot said.

AirCuity, an air efficiency system, will sample and monitor the air for chemical spills in the labs. In the case of an accident, it will automatically purge the air out of the space. In the old days, labs would have approximately 12 airflow changes per hour to ensure students’ safety; this system reduces it to four per hour without a safety hazard while occupied, and two changes per hour when unoccupied.

And this isn’t the first Cal Poly building to use forward-looking tactics to ensure sustainability.

When construction of Poly Canyon Village began in 2003, it was the largest university housing project in the nation, Elliot said. Still, it received LEED Gold certification.

“That’s not an easy certification to achieve,” he said.

And when it came time for the Recreation Center’s redesign, students on the Green Campus team — now called the PowerSave Campus Program — put together a marketing campaign directed at their peers, urging them to vote for the Recreation Center to be designed with LEED certification in mind, too.

The referendum passed overwhelmingly. Approximately 89 percent of students voted that they wanted the Recreation Center designed for LEED Certification.

The 91,559-square foot remodeled Recreation Center opened in 2012 and attained LEED Gold certification a year later.

Cal Poly’s Recreation Center is the largest west of the Mississippi, and making such a huge project environmentally sound took ingenuity, Elliot said.

They utilized a state-of-the-art Indirect/Direct Evaporative Cooling (IDEC) system — a system that produces air cooler than is possible with just indirect or direct cooling.

Although there are air conditioning systems on the roof of the Recreation Center the size of train boxcars, 97 percent of the center’s cooling is achieved through IDEC, Elliot said.

“Nobody had ever evaluated whether IDEC would work in San Luis Obispo, and it turns out it works really well,” he said. “If we cooled it only with air conditioning, it would be a huge energy hog.”

Updating the past

Some of Cal Poly’s biggest energy hogs, though, are from outdated features and unnecessary practices. Now, several of these issues are being fixed.

A new thermal energy storage system, for example, will use less total energy in kilowatt-hours to serve the campus and save Cal Poly approximately $100,000 per year in energy costs.

And soon, infrastructure replacement in the Yosemite residence halls will update Yosemite from a steam to hot water heating system.

“We’ve been moving away from steam since the late ’90s because hot water’s more energy efficient, easier to maintain, and it’s simpler and it’s safer,” Elliot said. “The problems that Yosemite faced — when Yosemite ran out of hot water or heat in the winter — will be a thing of the past.”

Students are also working to change environmentally unsound behaviors.

PowerSave Campus team leader Ravi Sahai, a recent mechanical engineering alumnus, leads a team focused on raising environmental awareness and changing behaviors on campus.

The PowerSave Campus team hosts a Red Brick Energy Competition — a battle royale between the red brick dorms for the most energy and water savings — every year.

“The aim is to teach students how to make daily differences to their lives that can make huge changes in sustainability,” Sahai said. “We hope that after the competition is over, they continue those behaviors.”

Over five years of contests, students have saved more than $28,500 and 1,039,000 gallons of water. That’s enough water to fill a pool about 267 feet long (almost as long as a football field), 50 feet wide and 10 feet deep.

“I think as a school we’ve improved a lot over the past four or five years, but there’s still room for improvement,” Sahai said.

Looking forward

Chair of the academic senate sustainability committee and agribusiness associate professor Neal MacDougall thinks the university still has room to grow, too.

“If you look at the nature of this university — Learn By Doing — sustainable practices are a great way to unleash student creativity and potential,” MacDougall said. “The university is in a great position to focus on sustainability. As far as I’m concerned, it’s super low-hanging fruit. But the longer we wait to really commit, the further we fall behind.”

MacDougall says that despite committed faculty and students, there is a lack of leadership from the top of the university chain.

“No one’s going to say sustainability is bad, but the real test, and I say this as an economist, is if they choose to devote resources to it,” MacDougall said. “I’m looking for commitment within the colleges and at the presidential level — something that says we care enough to stake our success on sustainability.”

The president’s office could not be reached for comment.

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