Thursday, January 27, 2011

Two opportunities for engaging environmental issues (and one activity, just for fun)

Two opportunities for engaging environmental issues

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This week, let me call your attention to a couple of very interesting upcoming opportunities for engaging environmental issues.

The first is a ten-week series of seminars on scholarship relating to sustainability titled, “The Human Place in Nature.” Sponsored by the University of Illinois Office of Sustainability and coordinated by professor of law Eric Freyfogle, this series is open to students, faculty, staff and the public alike.

In the words of organizers, the series “will explore the big-picture issues of humans and nature, the foundational issues that frame our environmental plight, morally and intellectually.” It will then also provide a quick survey of the most significant challenges humanity faces today, along with some assessment of the mechanisms available for meeting them.

Even though participants in the Scholarship of Sustainability series need not be enrolled as students, they will be asked to do their homework, which will consist of readings on the day’s topic from a variety of sources. Some of these are simply short articles from newspapers and magazines, but there are other pieces you’ll want to read at a desk, pencil in hand (or whatever the equivalent of that is, if you’re looking at the electronic version). All readings are available in electronic form, or in a spiral bound book that will be sold at the first session.

Sessions will begin with remarks from a small panel of UI faculty with expertise in the day’s subject, and then be opened up for questions and discussion.
The Scholarship of Sustainability sessions will take place from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. on Thursdays in room 103, Mumford Hall on the U of I campus, The first session meets next Thursday, February 3rd.

Even if you’re not up for the kind of engagement the Scholarship of Sustainability series offers, you might be interested in a one-day workshop that will be conducted at the University YMCA on February 6. It is designed to help citizens prepare to take part in the annual environmental lobby day at the state capitol in Springfield later in the Spring.

The workshop is being conducted by the organization “Faith in Place,” whose mission is “to help people of faith understand that issues of ecology and economy—of care for Creation—are at the forefront of social justice.”

The workshop will include an overview of the legislative agenda being pursued this year by a statewide coalition of environmental groups, along with some nuts-and-bolts training in how to lobby, and some discussion of policy opportunities at the federal level.

Noting that the scale of our current ecological problems requires action beyond individual and community stewardship, Faith in Place coordinator Brian Sauder said, “I cannot overstate the importance of this public advocacy work to promote renewable energy, increase access to local food, and ensure the safety of our drinking water.”

The Faith in Place Environmental Policy Workshop will take place from 2:15 – 4:15 p.m., which means you can attend and not have to miss the kickoff for the Super Bowl.

On the Web

Scholarship of Sustainability

Faith in Place workshop

Just for fun

In anticipation of Groundhog Day next week, the creative folks at the Illinois Natural History Survey have designed a make-your-own paper groundhog that you can use to predict how much winter we have left. A great project for kids, and the young at heart.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

American robins harbingers of Spring? No more.

American robins harbingers of Spring? No more.

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American robins have long been known as harbingers of Spring, at least among northerners. But to be a harbinger of Spring, you have to go south for the winter, right?

There was a time when nearly all robins did. Records from the earliest Audubon Christmas Bird Counts in Illinois, for example, which go back to 1940, show very few wintering robins in the state until 1951. After that, robins observed on the Christmas counts increase gradually through the 1980s, and then really surge over the most recent two decades. Robins can now be found in all but the northernmost parts of Illinois through most winters.

Why the change? I checked in recently to discuss reasons for it with Mike Ward, an avian ecologist who holds appointments with the UI Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences and the Illinois Natural History Survey.

Ward pointed out that, like other birds, robins have good reason to avoid migrating if they can. In part that’s because it is so risky. He said, “Migrating birds are forced to look for food in unfamiliar territory and figure out how to avoid unknown predators. It’s a very dangerous time for them.” In addition, individuals that don’t migrate, especially males, are able to occupy breeding territories first in the Spring, which gives them a reproductive advantage.

Ward noted that the northward expansion of the robin’s winter range might be facilitated by the long-term trend toward warmer winters and the availability of secure habitat in developed areas. But the most important factor by far is the availability of new sources of winter food.

“Contrary to popular perception, birds don’t need to migrate to avoid cold,” he explained. “They just need to be able to eat enough to maintain their high metabolism.”

Robins have been able to spend winters farther north in recent decades because an enormous new source of food has become available to them, the berries of exotic, invasive shrubs, especially varieties of buckthorn and bush honeysuckle. These prolific, fast growing, hard-to-kill shrubs degrade natural areas by displacing native plants, and, thereby, disrupting entire ecosystems. But they are a boon to wintering robins because their hyper-abundant berries persist on the branch right through the coldest part of the year.

Unfortunately, robins are also a boon to these invasive plants, since for each berry they ingest they deposit a seed somewhere.

The northward expansion of the robin’s wintering range in Illinois has occurred in concert with a steady increase in their overall abundance in the state as evidenced by the Breeding Bird Survey, an annual census conducted at the height of the breeding season. In the early years of the survey, which was begun in 1966, robins were observed at an average rate of fewer than 40 birds per survey route. That rate has grown steadily over time, and since the year 2000, an average of more than 100 robins per route have been observed, a two-and-a-half fold increase.

This population growth is also attributable to changes we’ve made in the landscape. “Robins love suburbanization,” said Ward. “Manicured, irrigated lawns make extremely poor habitat for most forms of wildlife, but they provide a perfect place for robins to hunt their favorite nesting-season food, which is earthworms.”

At least in this regard, robins do still behave according to script.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

University of Illinois team working to save the planet two buildings at a time

University of Illinois team working to save the planet two buildings at a time

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Let’s face it, most people find energy conservation about as sexy as the cardigan sweater worn by Jimmy Carter when he exhorted Americans to turn down their thermostats back in 1977. But thirty-four years later, conservation still offers some of the greatest opportunities for decreasing our reliance on fossil fuels and fighting climate change.

At the University of Illinois, enormous gains in energy conservation are being made through the work of a group within the Utility and Energy Services division at Facilities & Services called the Retrocommissioning Team.

The purpose of the Retrocommissioning Team is to restore optimal operating conditions for the heating, cooling, and ventilation systems of campus buildings, and to make or facilitate upgrades to components of those systems where that is feasible.

The team has grown from a single, 5-member unit when it was first formed in 2007 (slogan then, “Saving the planet one building at a time”) to a current staff of sixteen people who work in two teams (slogan now, “Saving the planet two buildings at a time”). Both teams include engineers, field technicians, tradesmen and student interns.

The teams typically spend about two months on a building, and they employ a highly systematic approach. Their work entails a thorough analysis of available documentation on mechanical systems by engineers, and a comprehensive investigation of operating conditions, equipment, and more by field technicians and tradesmen. The Retrocommissioning Teams also depend on clear and open communications with the people who use the buildings they work on, since their intent is to best serve the needs of building users, not to restrict them.

One straightforward thing the Retrocommissioning Teams do is identify the maintenance issues that tend to multiply in overlooked places as facilities age—things like clogged ducts, stuck dampers, damaged coils and worn out sensors. Beyond attending to such issues, the Retrocommissioning Teams also focus on ensuring that mechanical systems operate only as they are needed, rather than around the clock.

Some of the greatest reductions in energy use enabled by the Retrocommissioning Team have been achieved in relatively new facilities, shiny buildings a casual observer might have presumed to be models of efficiency.

At the ACES Library, Information and Alumni Center, for example, energy use in the year following retrocommissioning was an astonishing 42.7 percent lower than it had been the year before. The greatest part of this reduction was accomplished by using the available programmable controls to cut back ventilation and exhaust fans.

A similarly large reduction in energy use (42 percent) was achieved at the Thomas M. Siebel Center for Computer Science through extensive work on temperature control programming.

While decreases in energy use at the other 20 buildings that have been retrocommissioned are somewhat less dramatic, the average reduction of 28 percent is still quite impressive. In terms of spending on utilities, the University has saved a whopping $4.5 million thanks to the work of the Retrocommissioning Team.

The work of retrocommissioning has also played a large role in enabling the University to attain the 5-year goal articulated in its Climate Action Plan of reducing overall energy use by 17 percent a full two years ahead of schedule.

You might wonder whether there will come a time for the Retrocommissioning Team to ride off into the sunset, leaving behind a campus whose facilities are all tuned to operate as efficiently as possible. But their work is naturally recursive. They constantly monitor the meters for the buildings they have worked on, and return to diagnose and resolve problems when losses in efficiency are detected. Beyond that, notes Karl Helmink, who with Damon McFall leads the retrocommissioning effort, it will likely be necessary to revisit facilities in a more comprehensive way as the years go by. “After we finish with the last building, we’ll go back to the first.”

For further details about retrocommissioning at the U of I, see