Op-ed: Northeastern needs to go the extra mile in its sustainability efforts


"Energy-Efficient Windows: Technologies for the Future" by Berkeley Lab is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Northeastern should become a leader in campus environmental sustainability.

Maeve Singer, contributor

A couple days ago, my friend told me an unfortunate story about a man she saw getting off the T with reusable bags filled with Haymarket vegetables and fruits. As he stepped off the train, the bags spilled and the produce rolled all over the station platform, and both of us felt sorry for the poor man who had to take home bruised and extremely dirty produce. However, there was a part of me that wistfully related to those reusable bags.

Like that man, I try to do whatever I can do reduce my carbon footprint on campus, but it never seems like I am making a difference. Even with my collection of reusable water bottles and attempts at composting in the dining halls, I know my efforts are just a proverbial spit in the bucket. Real environmental progress comes in the form of much bigger and more organized projects targeting energy efficiency and waste removal.

 October is campus sustainability month. The objective of the initiative is to make universities more aware of their carbon footprint. Ever attuned to these issues, I have paid attention to sustainability efforts here at Northeastern some of which are very good, while some are questionable at best.

During the last meeting of the sustainability coalition coalition, Joseph Ranahan, the director of energy and facilities management at Northeastern, gave a presentation on creating a sustainable and resilient campus. Northeastern has ambitious plans to build on previous efforts to make the campus more energy efficient. 

The university already improved upon the old system, where each building had its own energy supply, heating system and fuel source. Now, electricity is distributed underground at a higher voltage. Additionally, there are multiple energy grids, so if one fails, the campus can still run on the others. 

Going forward, the school has three major initiatives in the works for further improvement: a combined chilling and steam plant, a combined electrical sub-grid and reusable energy sources. Ranahan also discussed incremental energy adjustments that would make the campus more efficient, such as replacing 15,000 fluorescent lights with LED lights by 2021 and retro-commissioning buildings with new, more efficient appliances. Implementation of these plans will reduce thermal energy use and CO₂ emissions on campus, ultimately leading to a more energy-efficient campus.

That said, I believe more can be done. For example, the university should consider installing a microgrid, which is a self-sufficient energy system that serves a certain geographic area, perfect for a college campus. A microgrid uses multiple kinds of reusable energy, which increases energy resilience and reliability. Moreover, it has a built-in failsafe against power outages. A microgrid stores some of its reusable energy in batteries that can fuel hospitals and other important infrastructure on their own electrical grid until power can be restored. Implementing a microgrid would not be a radical departure from plans currently under consideration, given that most of the steps needed to implement a microgrid are already accounted for in the current plans.

In addition, Northeastern’s waste handling practices definitely have room for improvement. Trips to the dining halls routinely end with me leaving with three to four containers filled with more than what I will actually eat. The usual takeout containers are compostable, but not advertised as such. The salad containers and cups are not. And while the compost bins and trash rooms in each dorm work in theory to address the excess waste, not everyone uses them in reality because they are either unadvertised or inconveniently located. While some waste is merely a byproduct of the COVID-19 pandemic precautions, the administration needs to do more to encourage the student body to join in efforts to reduce waste.

I come from a small town where the vast majority of the people really care about sustainability. My expectations were that Northeastern with its emphasis on research and the environment would bring a similar level of commitment to sustainability endeavors, especially since our campus is an arboretum in the middle of a city. Far too many universities are playing catch-up in environmental sustainability, and Northeastern should devote more resources to become an innovative leader in the field.

Maeve Singer is a first-year computer science and environmental science combined major. She can be reached at [email protected].