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Creative sustainability projects have USF vying for environmental honor

Solar panels
Solar panels
Published Apr. 6, 2012


Solar-powered mail trucks, low-flow dorm shower heads, thousands of newly planted trees and no more Styrofoam in the dining halls. ¶ Those are just a few reasons the University of South Florida thinks it should be named No. 1 for its sustainability efforts. Now in the final rounds of a nationwide contest by the Washington, D.C,-based environmental group Planet Forward, USF is working hard to spread the word: green is gold.

"We've come so far, so fast," said Christian Wells, director of USF's office of sustainability. "I equate it with our sports teams. It's kind of like the Bulls' spirit. When we decide to do something, we do it."

USF is now one of 18 schools left standing in the contest. Early Friday, it was one of nine with more than 500 votes. Voting ends at midnight April 14.

The winner, to be announced in early May, mostly earns bragging rights. But that's good enough for USF.

If it wins, the honor will come a year after USF was named one of the "coolest schools" for environmental efforts by the Sierra Club — a title touted by USF president Judy Genshaft in her back-to-school address last fall.

Wells says it's only the beginning.

"Universities are kind of like small cities," he said. "There is a very large or potentially very large ecological footprint. We want to look into what operations we have on campus and come up with some strategies to reduce or eliminate our carbon footprint."

Most of the carbon dioxide that pollutes the air comes from electricity and transportation, Wells said — two things a large campus like USF generates a lot of.

Wells' office is now working on a campus blueprint of sorts that will show areas that use the most energy and emit the most carbon. He hopes it'll spur people to change their behaviors, such as riding bikes instead of using cars and changing to more energy efficient versions of light bulbs.

USF St. Petersburg, for example, just announced the installation of two electric vehicle charging stations, paid for with a U.S. Department of Energy grant awarded by Progress Energy.

To pay for more projects like that one, USF can turn to a new green energy fund fueled by a $1-per-credit-hour student "green fee" approved last year. USF has amassed $800,000 from that fee, Wells said, and has already doled out money for various projects across campus.

One was the installation of "solar umbrella" stations, where panels attached to the top of umbrellas at seating areas provide power to charge laptops and cell phones.

Another was the installation of solar panels on the USF Marshall Student Center.

Jamie Trahan, a USF doctoral student, helped bring that project to life. As a student, she said it's empowering to be able to have a say in where her money goes.

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Seventy-five percent of USF's 40,000-plus student body agreed with her in voting for the fee.

Trahan hopes a similar reaction will help put USF over the top in the Planet Forward contest.

"We are a university that's worthy of the title," Trahan said. "I feel like students are excited about it."

Kim Wilmath can be reached at or 813-226-3337.


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