Students save 200,000 pounds of carbon in eight weeks

Class project reduces carbon footprint of local businesses, promotes efficiency, saves money

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Students in Ryan McPherson and Elizabeth Thomas’ “Climate Change and Sustainability” class had just eight weeks to partner up and achieve one goal.

They had to reduce a local business’ carbon output by 10,000 pounds, roughly the amount produced by a year of driving.

And just two students, Chris Sbarra and Lavkesh Rajwani, saved National Grid more than 15 times that amount.

Sbarra, Rajwani and their classmates began their endeavor this semester when they selected businesses to help reduce their carbon footprints. Student teams tallied 200,000 pounds of carbon savings as of early May. Sbarra, who selected energy delivery company National Grid earlier this year with Rajwani, said the experience was “really rewarding.”

“It’s one of those rare cases where we can say in a year’s time, we will have saved them 775,000 pounds of carbon.  I mean, that’s like taking 75 cars off the road.”

Earlier this semester, Sbarra and Rajwani approached National Grid community activity manager Dan Keating with a number of cost-effective solutions to reduce the company’s carbon footprint.

Rajwani explained the class first identified “low hanging fruit:” the cheapest, most obvious carbon saving measures. 

“We wanted things that cost no money to implement, like lowering the temperature in the building, reducing paper use, maybe implementing something to make drivers idle less,” Sbarra said.

They found that National Grid not only doesn’t directly pay for its electricity consumption, but doesn’t meter it. Sbarra explained that electricity flows through the building unmonitored before dispersing across town.

It was a challenge for the two until they discovered a tool Stanford researchers developed. It helped characterize the energy efficiency of the National Grid building, which assisted them in identifying areas that needed improvement.

The group looked to the building’s thermostat to begin implementing change. That move proved enormously successful, Sbarra said. The two estimated that by lowering the building’s temperature by just two degrees, they reduced carbon dioxide output by 145,000 pounds in eight weeks or 695,000 pounds annually if implemented year round.

“It’s huge. It’s way over the 10,000 pounds that we originally thought of,” Sbarra said.

The two said they saved an additional 1,100 pounds of carbon by replacing 143 sodium-vapor lights with high-efficiency LEDs, which now illuminate nearly one-sixth of the facility’s floor space and another 6,300 pounds by encouraging employees to frequently monitor tire pressure gauges on company vehicles.

Keating said these changes also improved employee safety.  In addition to being more energy efficient, LEDs produce much brighter, whiter light than the short-lived sodium-vapor lamps known for their odious yellow-orange glow.  He added that optimal tire pressure maximizes driver safety.

Sbarra and Rajwani, along with other UB student groups, presented their carbon reduction solutions in April to Buffalo congressman Brian Higgins, who recently championed Buffalo’s waterfront development. 

“He praised National Grid for the fact that yes, they produce carbon, but they’re willing to let college students in and give them ideas,” Sbarra said.

Keating said the company culture at National Grid is “rapidly changing.”

The company now offers onsite charging for electric vehicles where employees can “fill up” free of charge.  Also, with the help of state funds, National Grid offers a bonus to companies within its service territory willing to install e-vehicle charging infrastructure. Keating said National Grid also offers “paperless billing credit” for those trying to go green.

“Change is a mix of policy and education. The challenge is, how do we educate everybody, how do we shift policy,” Keating said.

So far, student teams have been trying to prove that education can help companies shift their policies and procedures.

On May 8, the class shared a semester’s worth of progress at Western New York’s “Sustainable Business Roundtable.”

Sbarra and Rajwani are concluding by compiling a polished version of their carbon reduction proposal, which will include recommendations for the future.

“What I ended up having by the end of the course was an interdisciplinary understanding of how climate change impacts various modules of the society, primarily amongst them being businesses,” Rajwani said.

Patrick Suter and Togzhan Seilkhanova are contributing writers and can be reached at features@ubspectrum.com