In spring 2017, Penn State hired its first chief sustainability officer, Paul Shrivastava, with the aim of integrating sustainability into all areas of the University, including research, teaching, student life, community engagement, and operations. He previously served as executive director of Future Earth, a global research network. Shrivastava recently discussed the University’s sustainability strategy and some of its key initiatives.
Why did Penn State hire a chief sustainability officer?
From our origins as a land-grant university with special strength in agriculture and engineering, sustainability has deep roots at Penn State. In more recent years, Penn State has made a public commitment to sustainability through the themes of our strategic plan, which include stewarding our natural resources and health and well-being of our communities. There was also a conversation going on about the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and our global presence. These conversations came together and created the impetus for hiring Penn State’s first chief sustainability officer. We are the first university in the Big Ten to establish such a position.
How does sustainability support the University’s mission?
It’s part of our land-grant mission to support the Commonwealth in being more responsible in our use of resources like food, energy and water, and in reducing waste. Thanks to our presence in 24 communities and numerous Extension offices, we can help make the entire Commonwealth of Pennsylvania more sustainable. We also have research and teaching presences in Africa, China, South America, and other parts of the world. So we can also be contributing to global sustainability. We are uniquely positioned to implement these goals because of our interdisciplinary nature—we have colleges that cover everything from business and economics to climate and environmental sciences and the humanities.
What is Penn State’s strategy for integrating sustainability across the University?
We think of sustainability as a spice that needs to be put into every dish being cooked at the University. Our approach is to work with individual units to adopt and organically grow sustainability from within. Each unit will develop its own approach and plans for sustainability, and we assist by providing advice, tools, resources, and programs. Penn State also established a policy, in 2007, that any new or renovated building on every campus must be LEED certified.
What is a LEED building, and how does it promote sustainability?
Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design [LEED] is an international standard for buildings maintained by the U.S. Green Building Council. LEED buildings follow stringent standards for green design concepts and materials and result in energy savings and improved air quality, among other benefits. Penn State currently has 34 LEED-certified buildings, with more on the way, on several campuses. Two recent examples include the Millennium Science Complex and renovations to the Business Building, which have both met standards that include reducing water consumption by 20 percent, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and reducing the amount of construction waste.
What’s on the horizon for sustainability at Penn State?
There’s a whole new kind of architectural design called regenerative buildings, or living buildings. Living buildings go beyond net zero energy and produce additional energy, plants, and food so they are net additive to the environment. They combine solar energy, plant growth, office spaces, entertainment spaces, and conference spaces. So there might be a café in the building and a green roof growing all the fresh produce. We’d like to have regenerative buildings on campus that could be living labs for our own students and faculty members.
What are some other key sustainability projects going on at Penn State right now?
A great example is the Sustainability Experience Center, a 9.4-acre piece of land by Beaver Stadium that functions as a living lab for both hands-on teaching and innovative research. While elements of the center have been around since 2000, the space has grown to include the MorningStar Solar Home, the “living machine” experimental waste water treatment facility, a community garden, and the Chevrolet Solar Carport. We plan to move the Student Farm to this site. We also welcome new projects to join us and invite the public to come see our work in action.
So sustainability really touches all corners of the University.
Yes, that’s one of the key messages of our vision. We are slowly trying to embed the concepts of sustainability into the DNA of the University so this gets done organically within every unit. It’s a long-term project, and I know it’s not going to happen tomorrow or next year. But if we stay with it and persist, we’re only limited by our imagination.
Paul Shrivastava is also director of Penn State’s Sustainability Institute.
This article first appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of Research/Penn State magazine.