ESF President Murphy: “Moving The Needle”

March 1, 2012 § 1 Comment

Cornelius B. “Neil” Murphy, has been President of SUNY ESF for just over a decade, but he’s been around Syracuse for much longer than that. With a PhD in Chemistry from SU, and then working his way up the ladder to become President and CEO of Syracuse-based O’Brien & Gere, he’s got plenty of experience in the realm of sustainability and the environment. So when a person with this kind of background gets up in front of a room to talk about sustainability measures, you can be sure that not a sound was made until he finished. To miss even a word of what he spoke would have been considered blasphemy in some circles.

This is exactly what happened last Friday at the Shades of Green Conference in Madison County, NY. President Murphy spoke about “Moving the Needle” – essentially, to make a measurable difference in the sustainability of our world. He believes that is largely the responsibility of higher educationto do so – and such is the goal of

President Murphy Speaks at Shades of Green Conference

President Murphy Speaks at Shades of Green Conference

ESF. As the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Murphy feels that it is the goal of the university to “educate a new generation of sustainability directors.” Furthermore, he feels that the only way a school can possibly be successful in teaching sustainability is to be sustainable as an institution in the first place. ESF itself needs to research and push boundaries in renewable energy systems, biomimicry, and resource recovery if it ever wants to successfully teach its students to do the same.

To illustrate his points, President Murphy presented the audience with some data to add to their background knowledge. He discussed the world’s energy usage – already at 16.3 trillion watts a year by 2005, and expected to have doubled as early as 2050. Worse, we use over 50,000 gallons of oil each second, and that’s a problem even before we consider greenhouse gases. According to the most recent (the fourth) UN Climate Change Committee, it is now predicted that our climate here in New York is shifting towards that of Miami or Atlanta. Syracuse without snow? A scary thought to most.

His evidence did provide hope, however. According to Ken Zweibel, a leading expert in the field of photovoltaic cell technology, published a paper in 2005 in Scientific American entitled “A Solar Grand Plan” in which he laid out a master plan to end American dependence on foreign oil, with solar power as the major game-changer. One memorable quote that President Murphy chose to present the audience was particularly poignant and enlightening. “The sun produces enough energy in one hour to supply the world’s energy needs for one year.” Imagine if we could take even just a small part of that. Oh wait – we can!

SUNY ESF is trying to do just that. The different initiatives being driven by students, staff, or by combination of the two is on an unimaginable scale. Take an anecdote shared by President Murphy for an example. He had a student whom he learned had been making biodiesel from used vegetable oils with his mother, in their garage, for years before he got into college. The university figured that if the kid could do it at home, the possibilities would endless if he started to do the same thing at the university – except replacing his home-made systems for some high tech (and costly) gadgets that university could offer him to work with. Now, all the formerly diesel vehicles on campus are run on biodiesel made with oil from SU’s dining halls.

It’s not just the people at ESF who are making a difference either – the buildings are environmentally friendly as well. There is a 16 kilowatt photovoltaic cell system on top of Walters Hall, home to the Department of Paper and Bioprocess Engineering, able to produce up to 1.5% of the colleges power per year. Baker Laboratory also has a photovoltaic cell system on its roof, and even some in its blinds, amounting to a total of 23 kilowatts. Murphy has a brilliant justification for these, even outside of their obvious benefits. His philosophy, and that of the college, is that they need to have these systems so that students will ask how they work. Inspiring students to be inquisitive – that’s a huge step towards moving the needle towards sustainability.

However, that only scratches the surface of what ESF has to offer. Like President Murphy said, in order to create tomorrow’s sustainability directors, they need to have everything possible available to them. So in addition to the photovoltaic systems on campus, there are also roof mounted vertical access turbines on top of Illick Hall, which take advantage of the wind tunnel created by the Carrier Dome and a wood chip boiler system that currently saves ESF a whole bunch of money by reducing heating costs each year.

In addition to producing renewable, clean energy, many features of the school’s campus are designed to harness the power of rainwater as well. There is a green roof on top of Walters Hall, which collects rainwater, and serves to cool the building while simultaneously getting more water to recharge into the hydrosystem. Additionally, porous pavement around campus helps do just the same. Centennial Hall, the new residence hall, is made with tons of natural materials, and almost all of the furniture is natural, environmentally friendly wood – just another one of the many ways ESF is staying sustainable.

In keeping with his theme of making sure ESF’s students are ready to lead the world in moving the needle, Murphy reminded us one last time: “If we can’t do it, who can?” So ESF did it. What is it? Well, currently under construction on campus is the state-of-the-art Gateway Building, the latest project on the path to meet the goals of ECN 2015 (ESF Carbon Neutral by 2015), the building will not only serve as the new “gateway” to campus, but will be the most sustainable building on campus, and one of the most sustainable in the world. According one of President Murphy’s anecdotes, the architects of the building offered them increasingly impressive designs, hitting LEED Silver and Gold, which weren’t good enough for the college, and even when they approached him with a design that would attain LEED Platinum, he still told them: “It’s not good enough.” Murphy made it clear – this building would defy expectations, and even LEED itself.

What will make this building so sustainable? Integrated heat and power systems, powered by 3 turbines within the building itself (two are natural gas, one is biodiesel) will drastically reduce energy costs within the building and around campus. A wood chip boiler with a pre-gasifier will create a state-of-the-art steam/thermal heating system – and all of the biomass to be burnt will be created by the Agriforestry department. The building itself will create a whopping 22% reduction in the school’s carbon footprint, an enormous accomplishment.┬áThe building will also have a special thermal wall, made of glass that will pre-heat air within the building using natural sunlight to make the heating system even more efficient.

But this isn’t enough for ESF. As has been mentioned before, the students need to be able to ask and understand what is going on. So the building will not just be super sustainable, but students will be able to use all of its various systems to learn about how to do things like it themselves! Oh, but that’s not the end of it. The building will be finished off with green roofs and a series of wetlands, simulating environments starting at saltwater and filtering down to completely freshwater, using just rainwater and snow. These wetlands will provide students with the opportunity to study environments right on campus, instead of having to take time-heavy trips (on busses or in cars that would create tons of greenhouse gasses and CO2) to places miles away where these environments exist naturally.

Oh, and one more thing – the entire project will have paid for itself within 7 years. Impressive, right?

The message of all of this? No more of this “do as I say not as I say, not as I do” crap. It’s generally considered to be terrible parenting, and it should be eradicated from our education system as well. ESF has got it right – how can a university “move the needle” and teach students to make sustainable changes in this world if the ones teaching them haven’t done it themselves? It just makes sense.


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