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Sabbatical

Loyal readers will have noted that this blog and my comments in print have been absent these past several months. Sadly, in December, the student paper decided not to renew my column for the Spring semester and I took the opportunity to dive head-long into my full time study of Sustainability and completing my transition to my new department. This has been an enormously rewarding endeavor and I look forward to the continued pursuit of understanding and knowledge in my new field. At the same time, I have missed the opportunity to reflect more or less formally and particularly in print (think deadlines!). Writing has a way of grounding theory in reality, and of forcing one to truly work through what they mean. As Interim Dean of the Graduate School David Bell once put it: ‘a thought is not real until you write it down.’ I have discovered the truth of this. Of course, talking to people about our future and the challenges of our times is also stimulating, inspiring and educational. And, I have grown to value this highly as well. In my pursuit to re-purpose these exercises, I look forward to returning to the blogging world refreshed, invigorated, and re-inspired. Stay-tuned!

By Liz Bloomhardt

Originally Published December 8, 2011

 

Duke has stepped off the coal train. Nostalgia, however, has us hanging on to the memories, but it’s time to move on. For posterity, let us note the role of coal in the University’s history with a plaque then move on by renaming Coal Pile Drive.

The time is right for this change to happen. First, because the University recently ended its use of coal after more than 80 years as the primary fuel source. Second, because the Duke University Medical Center (DUMC) is currently undergoing a dramatic physical transformation that should and will take center stage of the roadway. Third, because the University has more notable people and accomplishments to celebrate than a coal pile.

To the first point, in the Spring of this year, Duke officially ended its more than 80-year reliance on coal as the primary fuel source for on-campus steam production. Steam is primarily used to heat buildings on campus. Prior to implementation of the Climate Action Plan (CAP) in 2009, coal made up nearly 90 percent of the fuel mix for steam production. At the same time, steam production itself contributed 24 percent of the total emissions of the University.

Since the CAP was implemented, a careful juggling act of steam capacity has taken place. The East Campus Steam Plant, located next to Smith Warehouse, has been renovated and restored to run on natural gas. As a result, the CAP calculates a drop in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of nearly 10 percent compared to baseline estimates. The full measure of actual reductions from the renovations will appear in reporting for 2011, which is not yet available. Presumably, 2011 should prove to be another successful year of reductions in campus GHG emissions.

It’s now time for the West Campus Steam Plant to receive a facelift. The coal pile is now gone, and so is the equipment required to move and burn coal within the facility. In its place, additional natural gas boilers will be installed with fuel oil back-up. The building will also undergo restoration to reveal the original architecture, similar to the award-winning facelift of the East Campus facility. Once in operation, the West Campus Steam Plant will resume primary steam production and the East Campus Steam Plant will serve to compliment that capacity when necessary.

Plant modification is not the only activity happening on Coal Pile Drive these days. The drive is also undergoing a dramatic transformation from back alley to front door. Not more than two years ago, the uninviting river of pavement ran by a small patch of woods, then the actual coal pile on its way to the hospital. For visitors, you may have hardly noticed the coal pile itself. Instead you were more likely to be caught in awe by the tall smoke stacks imposing on the skyline with their harsh industrialism. You might also have been caught, literally, between the tall concrete wall holding back the coal pile and oncoming traffic.

Now, there is a guard stationed under a collapsible tent, with construction cranes and heavy equipment vigorously building out what will be a dramatically transformed part of DUMC. New buildings include the Duke University Cancer Center, the new Duke Medicine Pavilion, a hospital expansion and the new School of Medicine Learning Center. In addition to the new buildings, plans are in place to connect DUMC with a spine of greenways and quadrangles that provide healing natural environments for patients, families and visitors. That spine will run down the old Coal Pile Drive and connect DUMC with the Engineering Quad and the rest of campus. A screen of trees will be planted between this pedestrian way and the renovated steam plant.

With Coal Pile Drive’s defining landmark no longer in place, it seems natural that its name should also be retired from use. According to retired University Architect, John Pearce, he officially bestowed the name on the access road in the 1990s when the Durham Fire Marshal required 911 addresses for all on-campus buildings. Prior to that time it may have been referred to as Coal Pile Drive, but the name was apparently not official as it was a private road.

Regardless of the origin, the moniker is no longer needed for orientation. In addition to being a prime naming opportunity for a potential donor, the new greenway should serve as the foundation for the new name, demanding in its own right the honor of orienting the campus.

Duke no doubt has reason to celebrate the significant milestones on the road to its greener future. Ending its use of coal is one of those milestones, and the renovation and renaming of Coal Pile Drive is a true opportunity to paint the campus landscape in our future vision.

Liz Bloomhardt is a fifth-year graduate student in earth and ocean sciences. This is her final column of the semester.

Link to original publication

Sharrow the Road

By Liz Bloomhardt

Published November 10, 2011

 

You may have noticed the recent appearance of painted white bicycles under a double arrow on campus streets. They are sharrows, and they come with a message: It’s time to share the road.

These awesomely hip shared-lane markings are a nationally recognized symbol alerting road users that bicycles have a right to occupy the lane of traffic. In addition to alerting and slowing drivers, the arrows serve to indicate to cyclists the appropriate direction of travel.

Recognizing that many streets on campus are not able to accommodate a separate bike lane, the sharrows help tell both drivers and bikers that cyclists have a right to move into the center of the travel lane.

There are several scenarios in which we might acknowledge this to be safer than staying on the side of the road. For one, this helps to ensure safe passing of parked cars by cyclists and gives people exiting parked vehicles enough room to open doors. In addition, it also locates cyclists in a more visible position to cars approaching the roadway from side streets and driveways.

These sharrows play an important role in biking safety. The N.C. Department of Transportation’s data on bicycle crashes reported in North Carolina between 2005 and 2009 indicate that 7.8 percent of collisions involving a motor vehicle and a cyclist occurred when the motorist was overtaking the cyclist. Sharrows should help. Because bicycles move more slowly, vehicular traffic must adjust their speed accordingly. On campus, where the speed limits don’t exceed 25 mph, the sharrow effect may simply serve to reinforce this limit. That’s safer for everyone, including pedestrians, who always have the right of way!

One place you won’t find sharrows is on the paths and walkways around campus. Pedestrians have the right of way in these spaces and it is dangerous for cyclists to ride through these areas. A dismount policy, particularly for the heavily trafficked Main Quad and Bryan Center Plaza are appropriate and encouraged.

The introduction of the sharrow to campus streets is not intended to address the remaining need for a cross-campus, bike-friendly connection.

The sharrows compliment recent efforts to map bicycle infrastructure, including bike racks and shower facilities, and improve commuter incentives. This should result in the continued growth in popularity of cycling as a viable commuting option, despite the limitations of existing infrastructure.

Recently released statistics from Duke Parking and Transportation indicate that more than 520 people are registered as bike commuters, roughly 60 percent of whom are graduate students. These individuals are likely to live between two and five miles from campus. This makes the Duke-Durham connection to campus critical for heightened safety door-to-door. Duke should continue to partner with the city to make these connections a viable priority.

The sharrow program also enables the continued encouragement of undergraduate students to bring bikes to campus and to utilize the highly popular Duke Bikes program.

Another opportunity to expand the bike user base will continue to grow as bus and other transit options in Durham mature with the passage of the half-cent sales tax increase in Tuesday’s election. Continued pressure to prioritize bike-friendly connections with new transit options will augment the success of the future transit system.

Future harmony of the various transit modes in using the shared-road resource will require acknowledgement on the parts of all road users.

Ultimately, the sharrows can only do so much to keep everyone aware and safe. It’s up to bikers to clearly communicate their intentions to drivers and those around them. All parties must follow the law and obey traffic signals. Also, wear a helmet when you’re on your bike. A bad hair day is worth another bad hair day!

For more discussion of bike related issues and to find more information, I encourage the bike community at Duke to visit http://www.bikeduke.com to keep track of news and information about bike commuting at Duke.

 

Link to original publication

Ditch your car

By Liz Bloomhardt
Published October 26, 2011

Ditch your car. Take the train. Vote for transit.

On Nov. 8th, the Durham County ballot will include a half cent sales tax referendum for public transit. If passed, the money will support the implementation of the Durham County Bus and Rail Investment Plan (DCBRIP).

This is not a Duke election, but this is a referendum that will affect how people get to Duke’s campus.

The regional plan starts with expanded bus service in the first 12 to 18 months. Additional busses will be added on high-traffic routes and additional routes will be added in underserved areas.

This alone should be enough to make the referendum worth voting for by members of the Duke community. Duke Parking and Transportation (DPT) hopes it is, because the passage of this referendum will make it possible for DPT to achieve its goals of reduced single occupancy vehicles (SOV) on campus.

In addition to increased bus service, the DCBRIP also outlines the creation of satellite park-and-ride lots and neighborhood transfer stations. Neighborhood transfer stations would presumably make riding the regional busses more convenient for those riders whose trips do not necessitate going all the way into the downtown station. Park-and-ride lots similarly provide an entry point to the regional and University-based transit systems. These lots and transfer stations would be constructed over a 20-year period of development.

The bus-mode objectives comprise the most feasible part of the plan. Aside from the small infrastructure projects, the technology and skills are already in place to capitalize on the passage of the referendum.

These regional options and infrastructure are critical to the success of DPT’s objective to reduce the carbon footprint of the University transportation sector. DPT will likely continue to incentivize employees, faculty, staff and students to utilize these regional transit options and therefore ensure at least one source of demand. Provided the alternatives achieve convenience and efficiency, the need for those incentives should diminish over time.

The final two phases of the plan require substantial capital support from the federal and state governments, making them far less certain even with passage of the referendum.

The second phase of the plan calls for development of a light rail line connecting Chapel Hill at UNC to Duke and Durham. The proposed route would presumably replace the existing need for the Robertson Scholars Express Bus and the existing DATA routes that serve the 15-501 corridor.

Although the rail line does not appear to coincide with the existing 15-501 corridor, it has 17 planned stations over the course of its proposed 17-mile alignment.

I have long been at a loss over what to make of the 15-501 corridor between Duke and Chapel Hill. It has always struck me as a wasted opportunity and a great candidate for a limited-access highway. Instead, you find sprawling big-box development that necessitates gigantic intersections with absolutely no human scale and inefficient traffic flow.

The final route of any light rail that is built stands to drive future development of the corridor for decades. The proposed light rail route as depicted in the DCBRIP runs to the south of 15-501, avoiding it all together. For the duration of the viability of the existing development in that stretch, the car centric 15-501 and new light rail to the south will compete. Even if light rail is a clear win for commuters, it needs more than that to be truly viable.

The third phase of the DCBRIP calls for commuter rail service between Durham, Research Triangle Park, Morrisville, Cary, Raleigh and Garner. Although serving a sizable portion of the commuters who travel to campus on a daily basis, it is unclear that this transit mode would actually connect to campus specifically, necessitating a transfer. On the other hand, this transit mode would also serve the airport in close proximity, as well as schools in the Raleigh area.

The sales tax referendum for public transit, if passed, will be a boon for Durham and for Duke. Durham has been on a roll with successful revitalizations of several downtown areas. Regional transit will likely continue the momentum of that success. Duke likewise benefits from a healthy Durham region. It helps to attract top talent, and ensures a vibrant economy for the future workforce.

Vote for the future of transit on Nov. 8th.

Liz Bloomhardt is a fifth-year graduate student in earth and ocean sciences. Her column runs every other Thursday.

Link to original publication

Beyond climate

By Liz Bloomhardt
Published October 13, 2011

Since the Board of Trustees of the University approved the Climate Action Plan in May, 2009, the annual green house gas (GHG) inventory of the University has been trending downward. The calculated 2010 emissions were 8.9 percent below the 2007 baseline. These reductions are roughly on par with the stated goals set forth in the CAP, and that document has proved to be an able guide.

Over that same time, the Sustainable Duke website has indicated some mission creep. In addition to the objectives of the CAP in reducing emissions and reaching carbon neutrality by 2024, there are now robust sections that cover campus initiatives in other areas like dining, waste, water and purchasing.

This totally makes sense.

The CAP was created as a direct response to President Richard Brodhead’s signing of the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) in 2007. Sustainability, however, means more than just climate to a school’s operation, reputation, ranking and service to society.

This year, the president-appointed Campus Sustainability Committee, of which I am a member, and its many subcommittees have been directed to move beyond climate and focus some energy on the creation of a Sustainability Strategic Plan (SSP).

In addition to getting a few more points on the next Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) Sustainability Tracking Assessment and Rating System (STARS) rating submission in three years, an SSP has the potential to empower unexpected change. In the same way President Brodhead told me last year the CAP led the University to end its use of coal.

In the same way the CAP measures greenhouse gas emissions and set a target for carbon neutrality, the SSP will derive its success from the identification of reliable data streams and clear, articulate goals that can be measured.

The areas into which the SSP has the power to move however, (eg. purchasing and waste) are decision areas that quickly become decentralized into Duke’s many schools, departments and buildings. This will provide a major challenge like those already being tackled in the area of personal transportation.

In addition, without the same unifying commitment from ACUPCC that led to the CAP and similarly-focused plans at schools across the country and world, the SSP must navigate a less-defined space.

Though several peer and neighboring institutions including Yale, N.C. State, Princeton and Purdue have published SSPs, they are each slightly different in their approach and scope. Duke will be the same. Instead of crafting a holistic SSP over the course of a year, like was done with the drafting of the CAP, a couple choice areas have been selected, to be followed by additional areas in later years.

This year’s primary areas of focus are: a) water and storm water and b) transportation. The secondary area is waste reduction/recycling/composting.

The first focus, water and Storm water, is a policy area that is under central administrative control and has garnered heightened interest since the severe drought of 2007. A large user education effort was made at that time, and compliance with state and local regulations will dictate storm water management requirements. This is a safe, easy category to include in the first year. It is also regionally relevant if not particularly progressive.

The second area of focus this year is transportation. This topical area seems redundant, however, as it is covered under the CAP, and a subcommittee and a working group already exist to address the stated and evolving goals and challenges.

Finally, as a secondary focus area, a new subcommittee will form to consider materials management on campus including recycling, waste and composting. Waste management—and recycling in particular—is an often-lamented underachievement on Duke’s campus. This newly formed subcommittee has an opportunity to challenge that reality, but it’s not likely to be easy. The current waste management system is of the decentralized variety and therefore rife with political and bureaucratic implications.

Not included in this year’s list of focus areas are dining and purchasing. Dining in particular is a highly relevant topic area right now with the West Union renovation and growing food awareness on campus. It’s likely that these areas will come later, I just hope the prime opportunity to start to address them specifically, and sustainability in a holistic way has not passed.

The SSP has the power to change Duke in unexpected and positive ways. Let us make sure Duke is open to the possibility.

Liz Bloomhardt is a fifth-year graduate student in mechanical engineering. Her column runs every other Thursday.

Link to original posting.

Google+ Duke

By Liz Bloomhardt
Published September 29, 2011

Google added Duke. Duke is in the Google circle.

Since Duke is a socially connected campus, that may not have surprised you, but would you have guessed the connection was made over hog waste?

In early September, Google announced it had partnered with the Duke Carbon Offsets Initiative (DCOI) to invest in and purchase offsets from the recently operational Loyd Ray Farms Swine Waste-to-Energy Project developed in partnership between DCOI and Duke Energy.

Before I go any further, let me remind you that an offset is a reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Under proposed cap and trade programs, for example, offsets would come from reductions that take place in a sector of the economy that is not regulated under the cap. In the currently unregulated market, offsets are essentially one person saying to another “I will pay you to reduce your emissions because I can’t reduce mine, but I’m going to take the credit for that reduction.”

This is exactly the case for Google. In 2007, Google decided that it would become carbon neutral. According to the Google Green Blog, it has pursued neutrality on three fronts: increasing its energy efficiency, purchasing and driving the market for renewable energy sources and purchasing offsets for the remainder of their emissions. According to company literature Google has been carbon neutral since 2007.

Duke is not a mint like Google with its ad revenue. Google’s role in the offsets market is primarily to drive demand for high quality offsets; the mission of the University and the DCOI is slightly different. Instead of simply purchasing existing offsets in an underdeveloped market, DCOI was established in June 2009 with a dual objective. The first objective is to develop a portfolio of offsets for Duke to purchase in 2024, the target date for carbon neutrality. The second objective of the DCOI is to act as a catalyst for innovation and standards development within the burgeoning North Carolina offsets market in particular, and in so doing, share that learning with the broader community.

To fulfill this mission, DCOI is developing projects, banking offsets and brokering offsets to develop more offsets. DCOI is engaging the University research community, students, funding agencies and Duke Energy to develop the knowledge base for future offsets models in an open and transparent way.

In the brief history of the DCOI, the Loyd Ray Farms Swine Waste-to-Energy Project is an excellent first.

It took about three years to develop and construct the open source system from off the shelf technology. In addition to destroying the methane produced by the hogs, the system powers a 65-kW microturbine that feeds electricity back onto the farm and also powers the waste water treatment process which treats odors, ammonia emissions, nitrogen, phosphorus and heavy metals. The system, which came online in May, 2011, also controls releases to surface and groundwater.

Before full success can be declared, reliability of the system must be confirmed, other co-benefits must be measured and verified and the cost of the system needs to come down so the benefits are a net positive for the farmers.

Google, it turns out, has high standards for its offsets. Their involvement on the project not only lends a high level of production value, it is also an endorsement of the DCOI and Duke Energy project in particular.

So is all of this a green-washing hogwash?

As Google’s Green Team will tell you, capturing and converting methane into carbon dioxide may seem counter-intuitive. But, methane, the target pollutant of agricultural and landfill gas collection systems is a potent greenhouse gas, 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. So the conversion works out to a significant reduction.

On the other hand, the offsets generated by this project and enabled through a cap and trade scheme are an end-of-pipe solution. They achieve a marginal improvement. Plus, both of these sources of methane, agriculture and landfills, don’t just exist naturally, society creates them through supply and demand for meat and a disposable lifestyle.

So DCOI, now with the support of Google, is doing more than just putting lipstick on a pig. But we need to remember that the DCOI is just one initiative under the Climate Action Plan and Duke’s journey toward being carbon neutral.

Liz Bloomhardt is a fifth-year graduate student in mechanical engineering. Her column runs every other Thursday.

Link to original publication.

Be like Brian

By Liz Bloomhardt
Published September 15, 2011

Brian will annoy you with his enthusiasm. He will irritate you with his optimism.

But, Brian is exactly the kind of person Duke needs to get this climate neutrality thing done.

Brian Williams (not the one from NBC), is the transportation demand management coordinator at Duke Parking and Transportation (DPT). He has only been on the job for a year, but he is making progress.

The 2009 Climate Action Plan (CAP) laid out the challenge.

According to the CAP, transportation accounts for approximately 23 percent of Duke’s baseline greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint. Commuters contribute about 52 percent, while air travel (43 percent) and the campus fleet (5 percent) make up the rest.

Brian’s focus is on alternative transportation. It’s his job to create the right incentives and implement programs that entice commuters and residential students to move from high impact modes of transportation (the single occupant vehicle (SOV)) to lower impact modes of transport like carpooling, vanpooling, public transit, bikes or walking.

This month’s Green Devil Challenge is on point in urging the Duke community to “Get Electrified” and to engage the latest batch of Brian’s alternative transportation options including WeCar, GoPass and the not yet arrived hybrid articulating busses which are slated to start service later this semester.

First, WeCar: WeCar is the new ZipCar-only-better (according to Brian) program run by Enterprise, and yes, they will come pick you up for extended rentals—on campus!

WeCar ratchets up the sex appeal of campus car-sharing programs with four Chevrolet Volts. These plug-in hybrid electric vehicles are touted to be the most fuel-efficient compact car sold in the U.S. They will travel approximately 35 miles (which is sufficient for most local trips) on a full charge before engaging the gasoline engine. Just remember to plug it in when you return—sharing is caring, after all!

An Enterprise representative who was checking up on the Volts, which reside just outside the Bryan Center, told me the usage on the vehicles has been good and steadily growing, as has membership in the WeCar program itself, which arrived on campus Aug. 15, 2011.

Although the program appears to be on track to duplicate and hopefully expand on the success of its predecessor, ZipCar, the reduction of SOVs and SOV trips on campus as a result of either program is unclear.

The second exciting edition to the alternative transportation arsenal is the new GoPass program. Replacing the old subsidized system, GoPass is essentially a free bus pass providing access to the regional transportation network (DATA , TTA, CAT and C-Tran) to students and those faculty and staff with offices on or adjacent to Duke’s Durham campus.

According to Brian, under the old program, approximately 600 to 700 people used public transportation and had a partially subsidized pass. Since the new GoPass program was announced, roughly 4,500 Dukies have claimed their GoPass—a plastic swipe card tied to your Duke unique ID. Of those new card holders, Brian reported that about 1,500 have used their card to access the public transit network at least once. However, more analysis of ridership patterns and improved usage rates will be required before the program can be called a true success. Regardless, the initial enthusiasm is impressive.

In addition to the new and modified programs, older programs, like the free Bull City Connector bus between Duke and Durham, carpool permits and the bike commuter program are also still available and building momentum.

Changes in culture can be difficult and can take a long time to manifest themselves. So when Brian reported that the number of carpool permit and bike commuter applications is much higher than last year and creating a backlog at the DPT offices, my first response was nearly an enthusiastic fist pump.

Unfortunately, I also know the flip side this backlog implies: it’s the frustration and confusion that comes from interacting with an over worked and stressed out DPT staff. Barriers get erected, communication breaks down, assumptions are made, progress is stunted, groups feel alienated … you get the idea.

So, we might all agree that good communication, clear information and useful resources are excellent, although non-trivial goals going forward now that a good foundation of alternative transportation options has been constructed. Good thing Brian is confident he can meet the challenge. In fact, he has already started with targeted in-person outreach, access maps for well served housing locations in Durham, maps of bike facilities on campus and informational how-to videos. And there’s so much more to come.

Lest you think I place too much faith in one man, I dare you to meet Brian. His infectious optimism for positive change will rub off and leaving you humming: “Always look on the bright side of life …”

See, we can all be like Brian.

Liz Bloomhardt is a fifth-year graduate student in mechanical engineering. Her column runs every other Thursday.

Link to original publication