By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 21, 2007
The smallest public college in Maryland will become the first in the state to rely solely on "green electricity," part of a growing effort among colleges and universities nationwide to be more environmentally friendly.
St. Mary's College of Maryland will announce today that beginning next year, $45,000 from student fees will fund the purchase of renewable energy certificates. The certificates help subsidize alternative methods of energy, such as wind-powered generators, which scientists say are significantly more environmentally friendly than conventional sources such as coal.
The move will make St. Mary's one of a handful of colleges in the country to completely fund green electricity.
Perhaps the most significant element of the college's announcement, scheduled for this afternoon at a campus "Sustainability Soiree," is that the program came to be because of the students. Of the 1,080 students who participated in the student body election this month, all but 75 voted to pay an extra $25 a year to fund the program.
"I'm so proud of us as a student body," said Giselle Rahn, a senior who serves as the student representative to the Board of Trustees and was a key organizer of the referendum. "I was thrilled beyond belief when I saw the numbers, and it shows that students innately get why this is important."
The move came as part of a broader effort by college administrators and student leaders to focus on environmental initiatives. A solar cell installed two years ago on the roof of the college library generates power for the building, and the campus's newest classroom building, scheduled to open next year, will be certified by the U.S. Green Building Council, which recognizes the country's most environmentally friendly buildings.
Located on St. Mary's River, a few miles from the Chesapeake Bay, the college has long had an environmentally aware student body. Students have embraced activities such as an annual Earth Day festival focusing on environmental education and a winter Polar Bear Splash, in which dozens jump into the icy water in February to draw attention to climate change. And students have been pushing the college to do more.
"This started with four of us, and it became 1,100 of us at a school of 1,900 people," said Meredith Epstein, a senior and the co-chairman of the Student Environmental Action Coalition. "It just shows that what the consumer wants can be brought about."
In the fall, members of the faculty and administration got in on the efforts, forming their own sustainability committee to study ways to create an ecologically aware college. Larry Hartwick, a capital projects manager in the facilities office who serves as co-chairman of the group, said the committee has helped bring about a more comprehensive approach to environmental initiatives by uniting students, faculty and administrators.
"Everything has really picked up momentum this year," said Hartwick, who also is overseeing the construction of Goodpaster Hall, the environmentally friendly building scheduled to open next year. "The college is starting to think more strategically about sustainability."
As part of today's ceremony, St. Mary's President Jane Margaret O'Brien will sign the Talloires Declaration, an agreement created by 20 leaders of colleges around the world promising to lead the way on environmental issues. By signing the declaration, O'Brien and the student leaders will pledge to "openly [address] the urgent need to move toward an environmentally sustainable future" and "ensure that all university graduates are environmentally literate and have the awareness and understanding to be ecologically responsible citizens."
"Colleges are really critical in terms of serving as a model for counties and states and corporations," Epstein said. "And I finally feel like we've reached this milestone we've been fighting for."