Q&A: Harvard sustainability office keeps goals focused

Q&A: Harvard sustainability office keeps goals focused

Editor's note: Heather will be a featured speaker at our upcoming VERGE Boston on May 13-14.  

U.S. colleges have been no slackers in sustainability over the past several years. That certainly holds true for Harvard University, which opened its own dedicated sustainability office in 2008 at the behest of its students.

As a massive school covering 26 million square feet and about 700 buildings, that is certainly no small feat. One of its goals is to reduce the school's emissions by 30 percent with growth over 10 years -- from 2006 to 2016. To date, Harvard has reduced its emissions 24 percent and with growth the reductions net out to be 16 percent.

Here, the director of the Office for Sustainability, Heather Henriksen -- who will speak at next month's VERGE Boston conference -- talked to GreenBiz about the school's role as a leader in sustainable college campuses.

GreenBiz: Tell me how and when this formalized sustainability effort materialized at Harvard.

Heather Henriksen: It started as a grass roots effort with students calling for change and it’s led to efforts to establish our three university-wide commitments -- our sustainability principles, our greenhouse grass reduction goal and our green building standards -- and to have our office basically oversee and implement those goals and work with the community to propose and evolve those goals as well as other areas of focus related to sustainability.

The Green Campus Initiative started as a faculty and staff initiative in 2001. It was in 2008 that the students also pushed the president and the deans to create a formal sustainability office out of that faculty and staff initiative and that’s when the Office for Sustainability was named and it coincided with the announcement. So our office and the greenhouse gas reduction goal were both announced publicly in 2008 in the fall at a sustainability celebration that the president led in Tercentenary Theater with Al Gore and 15,000 community members in attendance.

GreenBiz: What's the overall big picture of what this program is doing?

Henriksen: I think in essence, what our office does is organizational change. We really try to be the catalyst for innovation, both on implementing current sustainability goals and then working in particular with faculty and students to envision new sustainability goals and metrics for the university to focus on.                    

Our efforts have really been broad with the sustainability principles. It gets into our greenhouse gas reduction goal and trying to use our campus as a living lab to pilot how you do that in a very efficient, effective, economically viable way -- and in a way that also engages all the members of the organization in that effort so it can be optimally effective.

Then it’s also very strategic focusing on our third goal of the green building standards, which is for us our greenhouse gas footprint is really largely our buildings.

GreenBiz: Could you expand on this idea of a living lab? What exactly does that mean at Harvard?

Henriksen: We work with faculty and staff and students to really use the campus as a living lab and to test out and pilot different approaches. So, for instance, in the Computer Science 50 course taught by David Malan, one of the assignments is for students to actually go out and create an app or a website. The students came to us and said, “We would like to create an online real-time web service that shows all of us in the undergraduate population -- in the 12 houses and undergraduate dorms -- how we’re doing on resource and energy reduction, so that we can better compete against each other to reduce energy usage."

So they created an online website where you could get real-time data on how each of the houses was doing on energy.

GreenBiz: Has that website the computer science students developed been implemented yet?

Henriksen: Yes, we have a Green Cup Competition where our 12 houses or dorms for the undergraduates compete every month on different resource production, whether it’s water or waste or energy.

                 GreenBiz: What has been the overall outcome of this formalized office so far?

Henriksen: One of the key roles of our office -- which has been recognized by the president and others -- is bringing everyone together to implement these sustainability goals and to create, if you will, an example of one Harvard. So not 12 schools and departments, but one Harvard working together to tackle a very important priority and challenge, which is to make our campus more sustainable.

We have audited 100 percent of our energy intensive space on campus and 80 percent of the square footage. We have institutionalized greenhouse gas emissions and energy in our five-year capital planning. We have set up a life cycle costing calculator that facilities leaders and finance deans created so that we can all look in the same way of determining which projects and then what’s the prioritization of projects based on energy and resources.

GreenBiz: What has the response been from the faculty, staff and students?

Henriksen: The students have been the driving force on our campus. The students are the ones that push for all of our sustainability goals, as well as the creation of our office. So the students have been incredibly supportive and really have been the visionaries in pushing this.

I think the other piece to it is we have a very receptive leadership team. Our president and our deans have said this is one of the highest priorities at the university and they showed it by agreeing to a greenhouse gas reduction goal of continuously reducing as much as we can the maximum practice rate over time and then setting shorter term, extremely aggressive goals like reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent in 10 years.

GreenBiz: What have the challenges been in running this kind of office?

Henriksen: One of the largest challenges is that we are decentralized. So bringing everyone together is really the key. The way that we’ve addressed this challenge is to come up with governance committees and working groups so that we can effectively engage the right stakeholders at the right level on the particular challenges where they have expertise.

Then the second challenge, I think, is keeping momentum -- how do you not only set these ambitious sustainability goals, but how do you keep people engaged and motivated? I think we’ve done that through a couple of ways. One is having the presidents and the deans really own these goals.

The second way we’ve addressed the momentum is that we really take time to reward and recognize the champions on our campus, both students and faculty.

      GreenBiz: How does Harvard differ from other sustainability programs on college campuses?

Henriksen: First of all, Harvard very much collaborates with our peers. We are part of the AASHE, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. Then we also work with the Northeast Campus Sustainability Consortium.

To answer your question on what makes us different, I think what makes us different is we’re a very large research institution. We’re larger than other institutions. We’re twice the square footage size of Yale. They’re about 12-13 million square feet. We’re 26 million square feet.

Harvard also was an early adopter in having a sustainability group starting in 2001. Because of that, I think we have led several innovations and also learned from others and incorporated those into our models.

GreenBiz: What specific innovations around sustainability are taking place at Harvard that other universities can learn from?

Henriksen: There's the Green Office Program, which we know Yale replicated from us and many others have. They obviously tweak it to their population and we have certainly done the same with others.

Another is our Resource Efficiency Program. So our student peer-to-peer learning program started in 2002 and I believe was the first of its kind in the country and that really has inspired others to engage the students and have them lead.

A third would be our Harvard Green Revolving Fund, which built up over time from about $1 million to a $12 million revolving fund. We know for a fact that many institutions have copied us on this. It provides an opportunity at no interest or low interest “loans” for people to do projects that they have done an analysis on and proven it has an economic and an environmental benefit.

Then a last one I’ll just give you is our Life Cycle Costing calculator, which we developed many years ago and is a way for people not just to look at environmental benefits or costs in the short term, but in a longer term view. It's about taking a 20-year view and looking at the impact of maintenance costs and replacement costs for equipment and getting a better assessment of what a project will do from an environmental and economic perspective.

GreenBiz: From an IT perspective, what are you doing to make Harvard more energy efficient?

Henriksen: The two drivers of greenhouse gas and energy on our campus are IT from high performance computing.  So IT is a critical part of sustainability to us. It’s hugely important for a cutting edge research institution like ours to tackle data.

The head of research computing, the head of Harvard University IT and all of the CIOs in the schools have really come together to think about data and energy growth. They came up with identifying three buckets of different energy efficient strategies -- immediately easy to do, medium hard and longer term. That's what the community and the IT community at Harvard have been working on implementing.

We actually have a really cool model, which we hope will be replicable, where MIT, Harvard, University of Massachusetts Boston, Boston University and Northeastern University came together and decided they all had super computing needs and had to build additional capacity. So rather than building five data centers, they all came together to build one super energy efficiency computing center where they would all share in that space.

We had outside consultants such as Google and we had formal partners such as Cisco and EMC who worked with us to deliver that. It was so exciting that the state of Massachusetts got involved and actually gave $25 million to the project, in addition to the $10 million from each of the five institutions to build this in Holyoke, Mass.

Photo of Heather Henriksen provided by Harvard.