Stanford students share how Stanford’s campus serves as a living lab to advance sustainability initiatives. (Image credit: Keith Uyeda)

To mark the beginning of Earth Month, Stanford community members gathered at Paul Brest Hall Tuesday afternoon to celebrate the sustainability work and achievements taking place across campus.

The “Living Laboratory Partnership Summit” highlighted the ways Stanford’s campus is serving as a testing ground, or living lab, for students, faculty, and staff to advance sustainability initiatives on campus and beyond. Kristin Parineh, director of the Office of Sustainability, said that Stanford – which operates its own energy, water, and waste systems, has open space, and is one of the largest residential campuses in the country – offers unique opportunities.

“When you combine cutting-edge research and teaching with the opportunities the physical campus presents, where better for operations and academia to partner to test and scale innovative solutions to challenging climate and waste problems than right here at Stanford?” she said.

Students in the ‘Living Lab’

During a panel discussion, students in the Living Laboratory Fellowship Program for Sustainability shared how the program gives them real-world leadership and project management opportunities that advance the university’s sustainability goals.

Emily Blackwell is a coterminal master’s student and a Living Lab fellow with the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability. Last year, while serving as a social change intern with Residential & Dining Enterprises, she helped promote the use of Cardinal Clean, an ozone-based green cleaning system that disinfects without using harmful chemicals or odors.

After realizing that the system was underutilized, she and her colleagues conducted surveys and engagement sessions with campus stakeholders. They learned that some were initially reluctant to use the product because of a false belief that the technology was ineffective, in part, because it is odorless. Their outreach helped increase use of this greener technology.

“It doesn’t matter how amazing a new initiative or a technology seems, you need the people to actually adopt it,” Blackwell said, adding that the experience demonstrated the need for a unified effort to meet environmental goals.

“[That] really opened my eyes to the importance of not just connecting with all of these different groups and connecting with stakeholders, but actually bringing them together … so that we can move sustainability forward,” she said.

Second-year human biology major Nora Goodwillie is a course assistant for Sustainability in Athletics. She explained that students in the class tackled problem-solving projects, like working with a campus dining hall to reduce waste at a fueling station for athletes.

“Students recognized that there was a lot of single-use plastic that was being used at the fueling station, and within the 10 weeks [of the course], changed the infrastructure of this fueling station,” said Goodwillie, who is also an intern with Stanford Athletics and the Office of Sustainability.

Students said the living lab experience prepares them for their careers after Stanford. Jeremy Rubin is a coterminal student studying public policy while simultaneously shaping Stanford’s climate policies on carbon pricing, goal setting, and offsets. He said connecting with teachers and mentors at Stanford has been invaluable.

“Their voices and their thoughts and opinions will shape my work. But at the same time, hopefully, my work can help propel these conversations in order to move them in different directions and sort of keep the ball rolling,” he said.

Jack Cleary, associate vice president of LBRE, discusses the partnerships that make Stanford’s campus more sustainable. (Image credit: Keith Uyeda)

Partnerships and opportunities

Lincoln Bleveans, executive director of Sustainability Utilities & Infrastructure at Stanford, moderated a discussion with university leaders about partnerships and opportunities that advance sustainability initiatives.

Holmes Hummel, managing director for energy equity and just transitions at the Precourt Institute for Energy, cited numerous efforts to engage students, including the popular academic theme house for science, technology, engineering, and math, (which incorporates energy) and field trips to the Stanford Energy Facility.

Jack Cleary, associate vice president of Lands, Buildings & Real Estate (LBRE), noted that Stanford often partners with its Bay Area neighbors on environment-related matters. “Our wildfire management plan that we’re doing up in the hills, that’s been a huge collaboration with surrounding communities and fire districts,” he said.

Looking ahead, Cleary said it remains unknown what effect artificial intelligence could have on Stanford’s operational units that maintain campus buildings and infrastructure, but said it offers the possibility of new collaborations. “There is great potential to partner with the academic side, to tell us where we should be looking and what we should be focusing on,” he said.

Achievements and progress

Parineh noted that Tuesday’s celebration came amid major sustainability milestones for Stanford.

“In 2023, the university reached an 80% reduction in our scope 1 and 2 greenhouse gas emissions, which is pretty phenomenal. We are also able to announce the campus has achieved 100% renewable electricity supply,” Parineh said. “Those are amazing feats.”

Over the last 20 years, Stanford has made significant inroads in making the campus more sustainable. For example, the Stanford Energy System Innovations (SESI) program launched almost a decade ago, transforming Stanford’s energy system from a fossil fuel-based system to a heat recovery system that is predominately renewable, grid-sourced electricity. And in 2008, the university constructed the Yang and Yamazaki Environment & Energy (Y2E2) building, which conserves natural resources and introduced sustainable features that are now common practice across campus.

More recently, the launch of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability in 2022 led to the creation of a new academic department dedicated to studying oceans and another focused on environmental social sciences. The school also launched a sustainability accelerator aimed at expediting research and the development of scalable technologies and policy solutions that address climate challenges.

In addition to the great work taking place today, Parineh said her office is focused on the future. “We also, in 2023, launched a new university-wide climate action planning process that is going to map out the next decade of climate action in mitigation, adaptation, resilience and justice,” she said.

A list of featured events taking place throughout Earth Month is available online.

In addition to the Office of Sustainability, the Living Laboratory Partnership Summit was co-sponsored by LBRE; R&DE; the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability; and the Office of the Vice President for Business Affairs and Chief Financial Officer.