Creating Eco-Awareness Campuswide with UNT’s Dr. Todd Spinks

February 9, 2011

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good. Hey, Mike, wasn’t Shon Anderson great? I mean, wasn’t that just a simple solution for a bigger problem? MIKE BRADY: Well, you know, so many times, John, it’s like the simplest things are the most obvious, and we just step right over them. What is it about human beings that we just take simple things and we’ve just got to figure out a way to make them more complicated? JOHN SHEGERIAN: I’m with you. Hey, listen. This is a great show we got going today. Our listeners should come on back because we’ve got the Lone Star edition of Green is Good. We’re going over to the University of North Texas when you come on back to Green is Good. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so honored today to have Dr. Todd Spinks on with us. He’s the Director of the Office of Sustainability at the University of North Texas. A great big hello to Todd Spinks from Green is Good. DR. TODD SPINKS: Good day, gentlemen. Hello and Happy New Year to you and all of your listeners today. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Dr. Spinks, you are amazing. I share this with my children all the time, the importance of a great education, and I just want to share this as inspiration for our listeners out there. You are not only an alumni of the University of North Texas and you hold a Bachelor’s degree in international studies and history, but you also hold a Master’s degree in political science and a PhD in information science. DR. TODD SPINKS: That’s correct. I spent a lot of time trying to improve my understanding in a lot of different areas to kind of combine with a lot of the experience that I had before in the military and doing some other activities in my life. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I mean, just truly amazing and really inspirational because there’s nothing more important than our youth now getting educated and much more than a college degree now, going on to Master’s and doctorates and stuff like that, so thank you. That’s why it truly is an honor to have you on today. Not only that. You also served time in the Environmental Protection Agency. Can you share a little bit about what you did there? DR. TODD SPINKS: Absolutely. When I was working with the EPA, I was stationed there in the headquarters in Dallas-Fort Worth in Region 6, and basically oversaw some of our more innovative and novel outreach efforts and research endeavors, reaching out to the global community, addressing climate change issues, the challenges related to the effects of climate change around the global community, and trying to bring together some persons from around that community to discuss how they’re overcoming some of those challenges, how they’re mitigating some of those effects, and then linking that with some very innovative groundbreaking research activities, where we brought experts, academics, professionals from around the international community to kind of address those challenges in a very practical and pragmatic way, whereby practices and policies could be developed at the grassroots level in order to help small communities overcome some of those very significant effects of climate change. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wonderful. What year did you then come over to UNT, the University of North Texas? DR. TODD SPINKS: I’m approaching my second year here, so two years ago this February. I came from the EPA over to the University of North Texas. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. And not only do we have a lot to talk about with all the great initiatives that you’ve undertaken there, but we do know that your team there is called the Mean Green. DR. TODD SPINKS: That’s correct. Our athletics folks, years ago, when Mean Joe Green attended UNT, they took on the name Mean Green. Here more recently, the students have inspired the entire UNT family to posit that slogan, “We mean green.” So not only are we the Mean Green, but we also mean green. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow. I love it. That is so great. So now you come on over about two years ago, and you come on over and you’re working with the President of the University and the other leaders of the University. How did that transition go, and what goals did they give you to start undertaking and getting done over there since you’ve joined? DR. TODD SPINKS: The transition was absolutely fantastic because it was a pleasant surprise to become aware of the fact that this university was undertaking dozens and dozens of activities. We actually began inventorying those activities, and we hit about number 400, and then we stopped counting. There were just so many efforts at the individual level, at the departmental level, at the unit level, etc. We started to work with different facilities at different units and administration to provide a glue, if you will, some cohesion, in order for the folks that had been undertaking these types of activities for years to come together, combine their efforts, and leverage the effects that they were realizing. The administration was absolutely wonderful in terms of supporting those efforts and inspiring and motivating folks at the granular level, the individual level, and the departmental level, to come together to do that. In fact, it really helped us motivate the staff and the faculty to link their activities to the many activities that the students were and have been undertaking for quite some time as well. Without a doubt, one of the most impressive attributes of the University of North Texas that I quickly discovered was the very strong initiative that the student body in its entirety was putting forth in an array of areas to make the University not only much more green in its operations, but an environmental steward. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, let’s talk about that. Let’s give some specific examples because I know there’s some fascinating things that the students have done right from the ground up that I want our listeners to hear about. Share some specific examples of the student body embracement of sustainability at UNT. DR. TODD SPINKS: Sure. To be honest, they’re the reason I’m here. A couple three years ago, the students began to mobilize, and went to the administration and worked with some faculty and staff to develop a Sustainability Council and to establish an Office of Sustainability and to hire a director and a staff to oversee and work with all the units on the main campus toward reaching carbon neutrality. Since then, they have just been absolutely fantastic in creating and overseeing, if you will, a number of initiatives, including an ecoroot program throughout all of our residence halls, where the students manage, oversee, and administer all the sustainability-related activities, whether it’s those applicable, put-into-practice initiatives, or if it’s outreach, education-related activities in order to change that fundamental part of the UNT community to bring about a change in behavior overall the entire UNT family. In addition to that, the students have worked with our facilities folks to establish green spaces on campus, to make our dining facilities much greener, whereby we have removed our dining trays to reduce the use of water, we’ve made our dining halls much more organic, we’re serving smaller portions, etc. They also, even last year, it took on an affair that was quite impressive. They pushed the University to establish an environmental services fee. In the state of Texas, we have just been recently granted authority to establish a student fee, if you will, that is focused primarily on environmental-related projects. Our students took the initiative, took the vote to the student body, passed it, and are now part of a committee that my office works with to identify projects and to implement those projects on an annual basis. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So in essence, the students voted for a green fee, which increased their own costs of going to school. DR. TODD SPINKS: Exactly. A lot of folks felt that there was going to be a lot of opposition to that initiative, but we actually had about an 80% approval for that fee, which is quite remarkable in this economic context that we’re all experiencing. JOHN SHEGERIAN: But is this further proof of their commitment to the issue of sustainability? DR. TODD SPINKS: Absolutely. I mean, it underscores the importance that our student body has given this, this new generation has established as a norm and an expectation, if you will, of how it wants its university to operate and what kind of a steward it wants it to be. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Speaking of new norms, how about the usage of bikes on campus? What does that look like for you in the last two years that you’ve been at UNT? DR. TODD SPINKS: We’ve actually seen exponential growth, so much so that we are developing a bike and pedestrian plan. On our campus, there is such a large number – every semester it grows – of folks that are bicycling across campus and to external sites off-campus. What we’re actually doing in our strategic plan, our master plan with the University, is developing a plan where all of our parking surfaces, all the parking that occurs on campus, will be moved to the periphery, and the internal part of the campus will be solely used by pedestrians and bicyclists. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Interesting. How about with housing? How have you greened the University with regards to sustainability and the issues that surround housing? DR. TODD SPINKS: Well, what we did in housing, I have to say that we have a great set of folks over in our facilities division that are absolutely supportive in everything as sustainability relates to their areas of responsibility. We have gone through all of the residence halls and established them as all energy efficient structures. We’ve gone through all the equipment. All the appliances are required to be Energy Star-approved and have Energy Star certification. All of the water devices, if you will, have been changed. Everything has been retrofitted to integrate low water use technologies. All of the residence halls have a very comprehensive recycling program, and then of course we’ve got some very impactful awareness educational programs that have been ongoing now for about a year-and-a-half, two years. MIKE BRADY: You know, Todd, we do have information that’s come into our hands. John and I have noticed with great interest that UNT is going to be the first university in the state or the Republic of Texas, to be more correct, to actually employ wind turbines. Can you tell us a little about that? DR. TODD SPINKS: That’s correct. A couple years ago, we started to design a new football stadium. The football stadium that we had here at UNT is a little over 50 years old, so it was time to build a new stadium, and we wanted that stadium to be as green as possible. What we’ve done is integrated renewable energy into the design of the stadium, solar and wind, applied for a grant about a year-and-a-half ago through the State Energy Conservation Office, which receives funding through the Department of Energy, to purchase and install three 100-kilowatt wind turbines on our Eagle Point campus, which is the campus where the stadium will be located. They are approximately 1,500-1,800 feet from the stadium, and will provide energy directly to the stadium and to that site. We’re looking at approximately 400,000-450,000 kilowatt hours produced annually by those three turbines, so it’s a very exciting time. We are in the process of finalizing all of the details in order to install those late this spring or early summer, so hopefully they’ll be in place by opening day for fall season, and we’re also linking to several educational and outreach opportunities. Some of our researchers are quite excited about conducting research on and about these turbines and their effects. JOHN SHEGERIAN: In terms of green building, obviously the stadium is one of the landmark projects you have. What other projects are you doing, and how are you going about it in terms of green building? The windmills sound amazing, but are the projects all being made with cement that has sustainable materials in it? What other things are going on in regards to green building on your campus? DR. TODD SPINKS: Just after I arrived, we were able to pass and implement a policy that all new construction on our campus will at a minimum meet the USGBC LEED standards. We’ve got three structures under construction right now. Actually one was just finished, and it’s seeking LEED Gold. It’s our life sciences complex, essentially a laboratory, which by its very nature, is very difficult to achieve a very LEED rating, but it looks like we’re going to be able to reach LEED Gold with that. We’ve got a new business building going up. It’s about 80,000-85,000 square feet, seeking LEED Gold on that as well. The stadium, we have been seeking LEED Gold, but the hope now is that once we can get these turbines onsite and integrate the renewable energy into the facility, that the goal will be to seek LEED Platinum, which if that occurs, that will make it the greenest stadium in the world, actually. For our other buildings, which we have approximately 180 on our campus, we’ve already begun to prioritize those that we will seek LEED EB status and we’re undertaking that effort as we speak. With many of those that didn’t make that initial inaugural year list, we are going through and conducting a number of retrofits and improvements in technology in order to make those buildings much more efficient. JOHN SHEGERIAN: If you just joined our show, we’re honored to have Dr. Todd Spinks on from the University of North Texas right now. If you’ve got your laptop or iPad humming, you can look up what they’re doing down there, just some amazing things the Mean Green is up to, at www.unt.edu. You talked about, Todd, the student body actually passing a green fee because they’re so committed to issues surrounding solutions and sustainability. How about your interaction and doing the balancing act between students, faculty, and the administration? How is that going, both politically and otherwise? DR. TODD SPINKS: Again, I was pleasantly surprised when I arrived here. Every university has its challenges when it comes to integrating or combining certain interests, but here at UNT, it seems that there are a high number of folks from the faculty, from the staff, and of course from the student body, that share a common goal. My greatest challenge really has been to keep up, to really ensure that my office and my staff are doing an effective job at trying to be aware of all the activities on campus, and to ensure that there’s a solid level of cohesion provided to those efforts in order to support the endeavors of our family here at UNT, so that they can realize the successes that I think they really desire to see come through to fruition. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. Sounds great. You know, the first half of this show, we were so thrilled to have Shon Anderson on from Schneider Electric, and he spoke about some of the great things that you’re doing at UNT, more particularly the major conservation initiative, UNT Smart. Can you elaborate on how that started, evolved, and the success that you’re having right now with UNT Smart? DR. TODD SPINKS: Absolutely. This is a result of a very successful partnership with Schneider in a previous period, where we spent about 10 years with them in a partnership, undertaking a performance contract to increase the efficiency of the general campus. That proved to be extremely successful, and so we’ve entered into this second endeavor whereby we’re going to take a very aggressive approach to replacing some antiquated infrastructure with much more efficient infrastructure, replacing some of our equipment, retrofitting some buildings, installing and integrating some very impactful technologies throughout the campus in order to decrease the amount of waste that we are creating in water and solid waste and of course in energy. The crux of it is that we’re going to be providing much more efficient cooling for about 29 buildings, and there are 93 university buildings that we’re going to be renovating. We anticipate removing right around 206,000 to 207,000 tons of carbon dioxide from this partnership, which equates to about 42,000 cars, so this is a very significant endeavor, and hopefully we’ll be another cornerstone, if you will, that will help propel the University of North Texas toward carbon neutrality and toward becoming a steward in sustainability. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You know, that’s fascinating. Shon mentioned a couple of touchstone issues that I want you to also elaborate on with regards to behavioral change in people and getting them to buy in and become part of the solution by offering them a real-time dashboard. Can you explain what that means so our listeners out there can get inspired and implement something similar in their own homes, in their own businesses, and wherever they happen to be? DR. TODD SPINKS: Absolutely. This is related directly to what my office and others on campus are trying to do, particularly with Schneider, in trying to bring some cohesion, to try and show the University community, its family, and others that we’re doing this together. Every action, every activity that we undertake, has an impact, and collectively can have a major impact. The dashboard is essentially a computer application that will collect and measure the effects of certain technologies that have been installed, the retrofits that have occurred, and be able to disseminate that information in a way that any person that visits UNT’s website will be able to see overall what sort of effects are occurring at the University and be able to look at building by building, what a building is using in energy, in water, and how that is changing over time in order for persons to get a stronger sense of what can be done, what they can actually do, and what is the resulting effect. I think it’s a very powerful visual that, again, in our UNT family, we’ll be able to have and to benefit from, but also the folks on our campus that are conducting research can leverage that research off of that information and off of that change in behavior to hopefully bring about more behavior change. Then folks off-campus can do the same, and being able to see what it is that we’re doing at a very small, individual, granular level or what a building is actually undertaking, and how it’s realizing a certain effect, and then what the University is doing. Essentially, an individual, a family, a business off-campus in this country or anywhere around the world can look at what we’re doing as an example, and hopefully integrate some of those initiatives, some of those efforts, into what they’re doing, and then maybe that will bring about some broader behavior change. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is just fascinating. You bring up a great point, Todd, with regards to inspiring other and leading the way. Given your title, Director of the Office of Sustainability at UNT, do you then share best practices with other sustainability leaders at other universities across the United States? DR. TODD SPINKS: Absolutely. We are a member of the ACPCC, the American College and University President’s Climate Commitment, and then also a member of AASHE, which is the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. Most of the sustainability officers around the country that are associated or members of these two groups, there are mechanisms provided for us to do just that, to have an information interchange, if you will, so that we can share our best practices, so we can share our trials and our errors, and learn from others’ mistakes, and learn from their successes. Hopefully, the underlying objective here is really to advance the technologies, the approaches, the sciences, etc. in as aggressive of a way as we possibly can. I frequently engage with my counterparts here in the North Texas region and in the state of Texas, around the country, and around the global community in trying to explore different possibilities and how my understanding or my counterparts’ understanding can benefit my situation or theirs. So I think there’s a continuous effort by most all sustainability officers to ensure that the information interchange is regularly occurring. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. Unfortunately, Todd, we’ve come to the end of this show, but we’re going to have you back because we want to hear about A) all of the initiatives that you’re working on and B) if you reach Platinum status, we’re betting that you are, over at your new and wonderful stadium, but Mike and I are truly honored to have you on. Dr. Todd Spinks, you are an inspiration and a great leader of the Mean Green, and truly living proof that green is good. DR. TODD SPINKS: Thank you, gentlemen.