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From Energy Conservation to Integrated Assessment of Sustainability Practices: the University of Michigan Experience

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  • Biology
  • Design
  • Ecology
  • Medicine
  • Political Science


As with households, corporations, and governments, universities are becoming increasingly aware of the long term implications of climate change and related issues of sustainability. Their recognition has been driven in large part by rising energy costs; some universities have taken steps to address the problem by retrofitting their physical plant, building new structures that follow LEEDS standards, establishing programs that reduce transportation costs, and promoting sustainability among members of the university community. Some have even conducted experiments aimed at modifying the behavior of students and faculty. In the winter of 2006, the University of Michigan (UM) launched a pilot study designed to better understand the behavioral aspects of energy use among its faculty, staff and students. It was suggested that more effective policies and programs could be established if UM decision makers knew more about the energy consuming practices of these groups and how much they know about sustainability and the energy conservation initiatives taking place within the university. At the same time, the pilot study could help evaluate the effectiveness of programs that were already in place. In the spring of 2007 UM launched a new initiative to capitalize on what was learned in the study. Three energy conservation and behavior change teams were formed to individually educate building occupants, implement energy saving measures, and promote behavior change on energy usage and sustainable activities. This paper first describes the pilot study that was conducted in five UM buildings over a 10 month period. Besides gaining insights about what occupants knew, what they did with respect to energy use, and their views about their environment and energy conservation, the pilot study served as test of data collection and measurement procedures that could be applied to buildings and their occupants throughout the university. Next, the paper describes how study findings have been used to encourage behavioral change. After a review of how these techniques have been coupled with tradition energy conservation approaches, the paper outlines a new UM program aimed at assessing the contributions of behavior change to energy cost reductions. This assessment is designed to be more comprehensive and focuses not only on buildings but also on transportation (commuting, inter-campus transit, walk/bike ability, tele-commuting), energy resources (solar, wind, biofuels), land and water (biodiversity, storm/waste water, fertilizer/pesticide, maintenance), food (local sourcing, organics, nutrition, composting), and purchasing (equipment, consumables, toxicity, reuse/recycle/disposal). This Integrated Assessment of UM Campus Sustainability includes a human dimension dealing with awareness, understanding, involvement, and behavior. Finally, the paper concludes with a discussion of possible applications to other organizations including governments, NGOs, and corporations.

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