A Remarkably Mixed Bag: The Exhaustive Rundown of OES’s Sustainability Practices

by Thomas Hochman

In a rapidly changing world, sustainability has become a centerpiece of the public conversation surrounding the environment. With the US government’s attempts at clean energy initiatives being generally sidelined by powerful corporate lobbyists, private institutions have taken it upon themselves to adopt more energetic environmental practices. In this space, the private sector has found varying degrees of success, with a whole host of economic, behavioral, and structural challenges barring the full breadth of potential progress. And in a particularly interesting way, OES serves as a microcosm for both the successes and failures of the current system.

A topic as wide-ranging and complex as sustainability is hard to approach all at once, so for the sake of readability, I’ve broken up OES’s environmental practices into three subsections: the cultural, the structural, and the material. Within each subsection, there’s a lot to dive into, some good, some bad.

The Structural:

Perhaps the most fundamental piece of OES’s sustainability situation is its campus. From an energy standpoint, this basically comes down to its buildings’ components – gas and electrical usage, structural integrity, and energy monitoring systems.

When examining OES’s structural sustainability, it’s important to consider its current standing through the lens of the OES Energy Management Policy. The school developed the policy during the 2014-15 school year in cooperation with The Energy Trust of Oregon and their Sustainable Energy Management program (SEM), with its mission being to “promote and sustain the efficient use of energy in keeping with our core values of our mission statement.” More specifically, OES set a goal to reduce its energy consumption by 10% (normalized by weather) in both electric and gas.

This ten percent number is an important one to remember moving forward.

In its initial appraisal, The Energy Trust of Oregon identified a number of areas for improvement on campus. Among these areas were the operational hours of our HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning) systems and the adjustment of our set points (the desired indoor temperature in each building).

In both cases, the problems came down to scheduling. OES has more complex scheduling issues than other schools as a result of the dorm program and its summer camps; while other schools might be able to completely shift their HVAC systems during weekends, holidays, and summer breaks, OES often still has students and faculties on campus. Even if one doesn’t include the summer months – during which OES summer camps still necessitate a fair amount of energy use in the form of air conditioning – as a part of this number, OES students are on campus around 80 more days during the school year than an entirely day student program (~9 months in a school year = 36 weekends = 72 days before you even add national holidays and other long weekends…).

This is all to say that OES’s HVAC and set point scheduling issues don’t have an answer as simple as just turning off the central heating on Saturdays and Sundays. However, as Rod Maynard of the OES facilities crew readily pointed out, there is still plenty of potential for improvement. Areas like the lower school, Morris House, and other sections of campus don’t see nearly the same amount of traffic during the weekends and the holidays that they do during the school week, and efforts to improve the HVAC scheduling in these areas would likely have a significant effect on our electric and gas use.

With this realization, however, comes yet another barrier: OES has basically one electric meter and one gas meter that services the main campus of eleven buildings. What this means is that it’s incredibly hard to trace our electric and gas usage back to specific “problem areas”. Only SPARC and the Lower School have their own meters, which is actually one of the reasons that the latter has served as a testing ground for OES’s energy efficiency improvements. But this leaves the other 11 structures on campus in limbo because, as Maynard explains, “The overall SEM picture only looks at individual buildings that we can measure.”

“We’re hoping we can somehow separately meter the buildings in the future, but for now, we are going to continue on our focus on the lower school,” he says.

The result of the metering dilemma is that OES is on pace to meet its 10% energy reduction goal in the lower school, where it saw an 11% decrease in electric use last year alone, but has struggled to make significant changes elsewhere. Take our electric and gas statistics from the last few years:

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Note: A mBTU is a million BTU’s. A BTU, or British Thermal Unit, is a unit of heat defined as the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of a pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit. When considering BTU’s for the sake of this article, 1 BTU is equivalent to 1055.06 Joules (the SI Unit for Energy). The specifics of this are not necessarily all that important as OES is more concerned with the simple question of whether or not the number of BTUs is increasing or decreasing.

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Note: kWh (or kilowatts) is a thousand watts. A watt is a measurement of energy flow, whereas a Joule is purely a measurement of energy, so a watt actually represents 1 Joule/second. For reference, charging a phone draws between 3-4 watts of power, or 3-4 joules per second. In other words, OES’s electric usage could charge 600 million phones at once.

You’ll notice that our gas and electric usage have either stagnated or increased over the last three years, with our mid-year (2018-2019) electrical use up about 1% compared to this time last year. Our gas use is down about 8%, but OES Director of Facilities Jon Von Behren points out that this is likely due to an unusually warm winter. While the 2016 opening of the entirely electrically powered lower school accounts for the increased output during the 2016-2017 school year, given the 11% decrease in the lower school’s energy use over the last year, it’s curious, to say the least, to see a relatively significant overall increase a full two years after the lower school’s installation.

Meanwhile, Scott House, a mixed gas and electrical powered building, was knocked down in 2016. While Scott House wasn’t a particularly high energy consumer, it appears that its removal had little to no effect on OES’s gas usage.

So, in summary, it appears that OES will not meet its 10% energy reduction goal by next year.

That’s not to say, however, that good work isn’t being done. OES has collected over 10,000 dollars in incentives for their clean energy generation over the last several years. The facilities crew continues to tweak its HVAC scheduling. This was the first year that we added covers to the air intake vents in the roof, which should give us better control of our energy in the wintertime.

And OES’s sustainability practices in the Lower School deserves special recognition, where the EUI (or Energy Use Intensity, a measurement of energy usage defined as energy per square foot per year) is 28, as compared to the national K-12 average of 75. This has helped bring our campus wide EUI down to 70 (effectively making OES marginally above average in its energy efficiency).

The Lower School’s success largely comes down to structural integrity, as the building is simply tighter and better insulated than other structures on campus. Buildings lose heat through thermal transfer and small holes, so OES managed to significantly decrease extraneous heat loss with its most recent large scale construction process.

And that’s not all. By shooting for EUI 22-23 in the Lower School, the entire building’s energy needs could reasonably be provided by solar power (based off of a calculation of roof area) in the not-so-distant future.

Von Behren, Maynard, and others involved in OES’s plan to build a new gymnasium hope to use a similar sustainability blueprint to the one used for the Lower School, although the new structure will be a slightly more challenging endeavor.

The new gym will likely add around another 7500 feet to the OES’s indoor square footage, meaning greater net energy consumption, but it’s hard to criticize campus expansion given the ever-growing need for independent schools to stay competitive. Plus, OES will replace its most inefficient boilers during the upcoming construction process, leading to better energy efficiency at the school.

So, on a structural level, OES’s sustainability practices are a mixed bag. On the one hand, OES does not appear capable of reaching the energy reduction goal that it set out for itself half a decade ago. On the other hand, the school’s facilities crew, spearheaded by Jon Von Behren, is working tirelessly to pinpoint and confront the barriers to cleaner and more efficient energy usage. Our structural challenges are complex and may take a long time to unravel, but there is work being done to move us in the right direction.

The Material:

It is in OES’s materials sustainability that one finds the most room to be hopeful. This is almost entirely due to Bon Appetít, where General Manager Kelly Cowing and the rest of the staff do a phenomenal job minimizing waste, participating in sustainable food programs, and running on-campus initiatives.

“We have very little waste in our kitchen,” says Cowing. “Instead of throwing away stuff like the tops of carrots and radish we try to reuse them for things like pesto and stocks. On the rare occasion that we do overproduce food, we donate it to the Blanchet House (a non-profit social services program known for its feeding program).”

Meanwhile, Bon Appetít participates in a number of sustainable initiatives (the Waste Management, Imperfectly Delicious, and Farm to Fork programs being notable examples.)

In the Imperfectly Delicious program, Bon Appetít purchases imperfect products in an effort to find a use for things that would otherwise be in the landfill, while the Farm to Fork program emphasizes buying from smaller vendors.

“Sam, who runs a local orchard, actually hand delivers us our apples every day,” Kelly adds.

Lastly, Bon Appetít has launched its own composting initiative at OES. Cowing says that recycling and composting on campus is nothing short of horrific, and that she’s spent a lot of time considering what food items to cut out of the menu to avoid compost contamination. Little things like the crackers by the soup bar and the small ice cream cups have disappeared from the cafeteria in recent years for that very reason.

In short, given how significant of a percentage of food is wasted in the United States, Bon Appetít is quietly providing an immeasurably important service to both the school and the larger community.

The other piece of OES’s materials sustainability practices that is important to consider is its paper use. It’s unclear how much paper we go through each school year, but the type of paper that we use for our printers is equally significant.

OES exclusively uses Hammermill printer paper. Hammermill is FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified, which basically means that the forests from which paper companies remove trees are carefully managed so as to avoid large scale deforestation and a significant impact on the biome.

Hammermill isn’t perfect, however, as it does not meet Green Seal certification standards. Green Seal is more concerned with the material of the paper itself – whether or not it uses recovered and/or post-consumer material, if chlorinated bleaching is involved in the production process, etc. It appears that Hammermill fails to meet at least some of said standards.

But, all in all, thanks to Bon Appetít, OES’s materials practices are something to be proud of.

The Cultural:

Here’s where you and I come into the picture.

OES currently does not have an administrative position specifically concerned with sustainability, nor does it have any upper school classes or electives distinctly geared towards the study of topics like sustainability, clean energy, and climate change.

“I think sustainability would lend itself really well to an interdisciplinary elective,” says Liz Weiler, OES Director of Academics. “But our structure doesn‘t really fit it right now.”

“In an ideal world, we have students that come up with things that they’re really interested in, and we hope that the process is organic. Otherwise it looks like we have an agenda, whereas realistically we want to teach critical thinking skills.”

This is an understandable sentiment in an era in which accusations of political bias are levied at nearly every one of our country’s institutions.

But one also can’t help but notice that our sister/rival school Catlin Gabel appears to be taking a very different approach to this conversation.

Consider this page on Catlin’s website:

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On it, Catlin details the creation of their Environmental Sustainability Council, describes their sustainability plan for the future, maintains an in depth database for their energy usage statistics, and explains why all of this is important.

Here are some more examples of the information one can find on the site:

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Energy Use data

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And whether it’s through its Counsel, careful data collection, or vigorous fostering of on-campus conversation surrounding the subject, Catlin’s commitment to sustainability has led to unprecedented levels of success. Since the 2006-07 school year, Catlin has decreased its BTU consumption by a whopping 26 percent.

Maybe Catlin just got lucky with the number of members of its community who are committed to moving towards a more sustainable future. But it seems more likely that this commitment stems from Catlin’s unapologetic stance on the subject.

Yet again, though, OES is doing some things right. This is especially true in the middle school, where the conversation around sustainable practices, the environment, and climate change are alive and well.

In 6th grade science, we weave the concept of human impacts on the natural world into the curriculum,” says 6th grade science teacher Laura Todis. “This year, we are basing learning around the ecosystems on the OES campus and students are exploring those impacts in our local environment.”

Meanwhile, the 7th grade is in the middle of a climate change unit as part of its investigation into the anthroposphere. Students research the raw materials associated with an everyday object and walk through all the steps of acquisition, processing, manufacturing, and transportation with the objective of understanding the impact of consumer behavior on earth systems.

In 8th grade science, two of the six units are about living systems and energy.

“Our overall aim is to look at what we are currently doing in our modern era and then to compare it to what we’d like to be doing,” says 8th grade science teacher Ethan Vedder. “And for each person that choice might be different, but if we know what effects our choices will cause, then we’ll be better able to make choices that best support the way of life we want to have in the short, medium and long-term future.”

So while there are pieces of OES’s academic and social culture that seem to lay the groundwork for a sustainability-focused schoolwide mentality, there remains quite a bit of room for improvement.

And I think that this seems to be the case across the board for our school.

We’re lucky enough to have some select individuals on campus who continue to work hard – whether that be curricularly, socially, or otherwise) – to make OES a more environmentally focused place. But enough hurdles remain that our current situation cries out for a bolder initiative moving forward.

Still, despite their shortcomings, OES’s sustainability practices have hope for the future.

Thanks for reading.