April 21, 2006 -- Students at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., have spent the month of April "doing it in the dark."
Studying, that is, or hanging out with friends or anything else they do in their dormitories -- just with most of the lights dimmed and with electronics turned off and things like phone chargers unplugged, all in an effort to save energy.
It's part of an Earth Day competition to see which dorm can conserve the most. According to Stephanie Boyd, director of operations at Williams and head of its Climate Action Committee, in the previous competition last fall one building's consumption dropped 44 percent, and so far this year a few dorms have had weeks in which consumption fell 30 percent. Overall, dormitories have dropped 6 percent in energy consumption this month.
Keith McWhorter, a senior who is coordinating the competition, said the campus is concentrating on changing the little things. "In college we leave our computers on. We leave lights on in common areas," he said. "So I think a lot of it is turning off lights and computers, something we can do regularly."
The Williams College effort is part of a growing trend among colleges and universities to create green campuses. At least 110 colleges have either built or are building environmentally friendly and energy-efficient buildings, according to the United States Green Building Council.
Boyd said the contest is a great way to raise environmental awareness among students. "While it's always been part of the mission of the facilities group," she said, "on a broader campus perspective, we are much more enthused and active in this area."
Students at Williams had previously taken the initiative to become greener. They gathered more than 1,000 signatures last year from the 2,000-student campus to urge the administration to reduce greenhouse gas emissions like carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. The result is the Climate Action Committee that Boyd chairs, which inventories emissions and sets efficiency goals for the campus to meet.
Williams College also works with officials in Williamstown, which is part of the national Cities for Climate Protection campaign to reduce greenhouse emissions.
Jane Allen, who serves on the board of selectmen and the COOL Committee (which stands for CO2 Lowering) said the town is taking steps to reduce emissions by 10 percent by 2010. It also will vote next month on a program to encourage residents to buy fuel-efficient vehicles by offering rebates of portions of the town's excise tax.
"We're just finding opportunities to implement [ideas] where we never thought," Allen said.
At Berea College in Berea, Ky., the need for more housing for nontraditional students, such as parents, coupled with the desire to create an environmentally sustainable campus, led to the creation of an Ecovillage that has operated for two years.
The 50 apartments, commons area, child-care center and other areas use 75 percent less energy and water than conventional buildings do, said Richard Olson, director of the sustainability and environmental studies program at Berea. In addition, at least half of the materials that would otherwise go to landfills are recycled, and all water leaving the Ecovillage is of at least "swimmable quality."
There is also an on-site sewage treatment plant that relies on natural processes to convert sewage to water that is then used to flush the toilets and for other nondrinking uses.
"We've definitely seen there's an increase in awareness and participation at the Ecovillage, which is one part of a much broader campaign," Olson said, which includes building renovations, recycling, formal education and dormitory competitions promoting energy efficiency.
At Harvard University -- the ninth-largest university purchaser of green power in the country, according to the Environmental Protection Agency -- the Green Campus Initiative works to promote conservation both among students and within university facilities.
Harvard recycles about 45 percent of its waste, said Leith Sharp, director of the Green Campus Initiative, and the university has 13 building projects that integrate the United States Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards. The school also has a $6.5 million revolving loan fund for conservation projects that is repaid with the savings generated from previously funded projects.
"Students are very proactive about this issue," Sharp said. "On campuses all over the country, the students are really taking a lot of leadership to get universities to make commitments, particularly to greenhouse gas reduction."