How Stanford's sustainability czar will mobilize the campus

L.A. Cicero Joseph Stagner

Joseph Stagner is developing plans to reduce Stanford's greenhouse gas emissions in the coming years.

Joseph Stagner became on Nov. 7 the first executive director of the university’s new Department of Sustainability and Energy Management. He previously was director of the utilities division at the University of California-Davis, where he was instrumental in moving it toward energy independence. Here he answers questions from the Stanford News Service about sustainability at Stanford.

Q: You arrived at Stanford with a mandate to make the university adopt more sustainable practices. Where did things stand when you arrived?

A: The campus has a robust energy-management system in place and has done much to improve efficiency in its existing buildings; it has set high efficiency standards for new construction; and it has a great opportunity to redesign its long-term energy supply to a greener alternative when the current cogeneration contract expires in 2015.

Q: Have we already made the easy cuts in energy use?

A: We have done much of this already, and there is still more we are pursuing. But we are definitely moving into larger things such as the Capital Energy Retrofit program for major buildings, stronger design standards for new buildings and greener energy supply to enhance our greenhouse gas reduction efforts and move to an even higher plane of sustainability.

Q: What is being done about the buildings known as the “energy hogs”?

A: The Capital Energy Retrofit program has targeted the 12 largest energy hogs on campus and has shown very promising results. The first project completed, Stauffer 1, has shown a 40 percent reduction in energy use in the first six months. Energy savings from one of the next buildings to be retrofitted, the Beckman Center, are expected to exceed all the energy used by the new Y2E2 building. The program is a great value, and we hope to expand it to another 25 buildings.

Q: When we talk about energy use in buildings, we tend to think heating, cooling and lighting. But what about those fume hoods that are ubiquitous in laboratories?

A: Fume hoods are big energy hogs because they use so much conditioned air. High air volumes are required for lab safety when the fume hoods are in use, and this requires the heating and air conditioning systems in buildings to be a lot larger than would otherwise be required. When the fume hoods are not in use but left open, a tremendous amount of energy is wasted by the conditioned air flowing through the hoods and out of the building. Fume hood efficiency, by consolidating and reducing the number of hoods as well as practicing adept management of their use, represents a great opportunity for reducing energy use and our greenhouse gas emissions on campus.

Q: How are we doing at recycling and transportation?

A: Great! The campus recycles more than 60 percent of its waste, and the Transportation Demand Management program has reduced single-occupancy vehicles in the commute from 72 percent to 52 percent over the past five years, allowing overall traffic into campus to remain relatively flat over that same time frame despite campus growth.

Q: Are you excited about the work under way to develop a concrete program to reduce Stanford’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the coming years?

A: Yes. Progress in educating the country and world about the threat from global warming and need to act has accelerated exponentially the past year, and much of the credit for this goes to the higher education community. Stanford’s effort to reduce its GHG emissions will lead others to action in this great global challenge. It’s not only our environmental responsibility to do this, but it’s also a chance to lead by example and further the message our own Nobel Prize-winning faculty are telling the world.

Q: What’s the biggest single source of GHG on campus?

A: Our biggest source of GHG is the Cardinal Cogeneration plant, which accounts for 89 percent of our emissions. It is such a large source because it supplies more than 90 percent of campus energy and is 100 percent fossil fueled by natural gas. We have several plans under consideration for addressing this. First, we will continue to reduce the amount of energy the campus uses through energy efficiency in our new and existing buildings. Second, we could incorporate all or part of the plant with greener energy sources such as wind, solar and geothermal into our energy supply portfolio. Third, we could increase the efficiency of our central energy facility. Fourth, we will explore offseting our carbon emissions at another location where it may be more cost-effective to do so.

Q: Is there a sliding scale of money spent versus GHG reduction?

A: Yes. Different approaches yield different returns in GHG reduction, and this will vary at each institution because of its own unique circumstances, such as its climate, its energy sources and its available resources. Furthermore, changing regulations and technological innovation in response to the GHG threat will alter approaches over time. It is therefore prudent to build flexibility into any GHG reduction program we embark upon for the long term.

Q: Talk to us about chilled water.

A: Chilled water is used to cool buildings and research equipment. It is produced at the Central Energy Facility using energy from the cogeneration plant and then transported to the buildings via underground pipelines before returning to the plant to be cooled down again. At the plant, chilled water is produced in two ways, one that uses steam and another that uses electricity, both supplied by the cogeneration plant. Making chilled water with steam is far less energy efficient than from a modern electric chiller. Back in the 1980s when the cogeneration plant was built this was not the case, and electric chillers were not nearly as efficient; however, great improvements in that technology have occurred in the past 20 years. This makes it more economical to use electricity to make chilled water today and significantly reduces GHG as well. One of the larger opportunities for reducing greenhouse gases is to stop using steam to make chilled water after the current Cardinal Cogeneration plant contract expires in 2015.

Q: What about a Stanford wind farm in the hills or solar panels on roofs?

A: We are looking into all these options via the greenhouse gas emissions reduction study. Our initial findings are that the Stanford campus itself is a mediocre location for wind power and that it would be better to invest in a wind farm in a more optimum location and bring the power to campus over the existing transmission system. We have also determined that using solar power to produce electricity via steam generation from parabolic-trough or dish-type mirrors is far more effective than photovoltaic panels, given the current state of the technology. So while we could very well invest in some small localized solar PV installations, it is likely that we would opt for solar steam-based electricity generation for our larger needs since it is more cost-effective.

Q: How do you manage to get a highly decentralized campus, where faculty and staff value their independence, to adopt sustainable practices?

A: Educate people of the facts and wisdom of operating sustainably, and provide them the tools to do it. The campus Sustainability Working Group is establishing separate Sustainability Working Teams for each of the main elements of sustainability, such as energy and atmosphere; procurement and recycling; water; and transportation, among others. These teams will be composed of those on campus with the operational know-how and authority to make change and those with subject matter expertise, as well as a good representation of campus stakeholders on the issues. Their charter is to research best practices in the industry, evaluate how Stanford is doing and develop plans for continuing our advancement in sustainability. People interested in volunteering should e-mail

Q: What is students’ role in making the campus more sustainable?

A: Leadership. Students were—and are—one of the larger voices in pointing out the problem and demanding sustainability from their parents’ generation. Their concern has led to the success of the movement to bring our attention to the challenges of global warming.Their continuing leadership in educating fellow students and the community about these issues will play a big part in the outreach effort.