Green Acres

IIT Sets New Goals for Greening Main Campus

Green Acres

“There are two inexhaustible resources,” says Joseph Clair (M.S. MAE ’95), who has joined IIT as its first director of campus energy and sustainability, “the sun—if it’s here, we’re here—and human ingenuity, which is infinite.”

It’s an appropriate philosophy for a technology-focused university, where innovation and creativity work to advance knowledge and society. In an effort to be a better steward of the environment and to improve the quality of life at the university, IIT is introducing a new University Sustainability Policy this fall. Arriving on the heels of the launch of IIT’s Wanger Institute for Sustainable Energy Research, the plan will shepherd operating initiatives that will help the university become greener and more sustainable.

“The program goal is to bring into our daily operating practices the innovation and creativity of our diverse student body, exceptional faculty, and talented staff,” says Vice President John Collins, whose Office of Business and Administration is coordinating the effort. “Joseph Clair is widely respected and brings to IIT a broad range of experience with energy and sustainability issues.”

Improved sustainability and energy-efficiency is growing among United States universities. According to the Energy Information Administration’s Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey, each year American universities spend approximately $2 billion on energy alone, in 2004 dollars. By going green, universities can significantly impact spending while increasing their pool of prospective students, who “have grown up in an era of environmental stewardship and are making discerning choices about whether the colleges they attend are green,” says Clair.

IIT’s Main Campus alone spans 120 acres—a system of people, buildings, vehicles, landscaping, and utilities. With the population of the university community expected to grow in the coming years, so too will its demand for energy and resources. The University Sustainability Policy will encourage and support a variety of practices—both tested, common-sense approaches as well as new and updated technologies—that will define and support a university-wide vision for sustainability, enable IIT to better document and measure its work, and ultimately serve as a model of sustainable living for other communities.

“As a university with a history in this area, we have to walk the walk. We must practice sustainability and be a leader for IIT stakeholders, the community, and the rest of the world.” —Said Al-Hallaj

Greening a university, compared to other businesses and organizations, comes with its own unique set of challenges. First, and perhaps most fundamental, is determining a generally accepted definition of sustainability—“one man’s green is another man’s gray,” Clair says—which can differ from college to college based on varying disciplines and perspectives.

Other key challenges include reducing the use of natural resources—namely water, steel, and masonry—as well as energy use in business and facilities.

“We have a diversity of building styles—residential, commercial, industrial, retail—so it’s difficult to have a single energy-use strategy for the entire campus,” Clair notes. Whereas determining a base pattern of energy use in a typical residential building is relatively straightforward, for example, students live and work at different times of the day, which makes assessing energy needs in student residences more challenging. Similarly, as opposed to many commercial businesses, IIT has some facilities with 24-hour use patterns, including labs, as well as other special energy requirements.

“We have to think at a micro level about how each building is used, and we have to use only the resources that we need. Our vision for sustainability has to be applied to everything at all levels of our operations,” he says. “If we do this we will increase the quality of life on campus, which advances our educational and research mission.”

“If you consider the three components of sustainability—environmental, social, and economical—IIT will benefit in all three aspects,” says George P. Nassos, director of the Center for Sustainable Enterprise at IIT Stuart School of Business. As part of its mission, the CSE advises business leaders about how they can alter their business practices to be more sustainable, thereby improving the environment as well as their company’s bottom line.

“By being environmentally sustainable, the university is utilizing fewer natural resources; if it’s social, we’re reducing our carbon footprint, which reduces climate change and impacts people, whether a change affects agriculture or rising flood waters. By using fewer natural resources, we are also being economically sustainable; we pay less, use less wattage, save on disposal, and prevent pollution.

“If we look at the economic aspect even further, promoting and advertising our sustainability will contribute to attracting higher-quality students, which impacts our revenue and helps the bottom line. It’s good to do it, even if you don’t tell anyone, but even better if you do.”

Clair says successful sustainability is well within reach for IIT. “IIT has so much knowledge in this area and sustainability here is inbred,” he says. “Also, we’re an urban school. If we can show that we can make sustainability work here, in a diverse community within the city, using a forward-thinking model, we can establish a standard for other small communities in the Chicago area and urban centers all over the world.”

A partner in developing a more sustainable IIT is the University Sustainability Committee. Formed two years ago, the committee, headed by Said Al-Hallaj, research associate professor of chemical and biological engineering, is an interdisciplinary collective of faculty working in sustainability-related research. The committee’s goal is to educate faculty about the various sustainability initiatives being developed as part of IIT’s operations and to provide input into the decision-making.

“The most important message we emphasize is that sustainability shouldn’t be driven by saving costs only,” says Al-Hallaj. “As a university with a history in this area, we have to walk the walk. We must practice sustainability and be a leader for IIT stakeholders, the community, and the rest of the world.”

The committee has been working with the university to replace worn-out IIT vehicles with vehicles that use the best new green technology, including pure-electric small vehicles for parking, general operations, and security staffs. IIT currently has three all-electric vehicles in use.

Through these changes and other efforts, IIT aspires to be a “sustainable village”—a model for small communities that going green is feasible. This includes exporting successful strategies to other city neighborhoods, applying methods that have worked within IIT’s own grid within the cityscape to other areas. IIT plans to show the City of Chicago how planned upgrades at the McCormick Student Village student residence could be applied in the construction of a 2016 Olympic Village.

Ironically, when such sustainability is fully integrated, whether on IIT’s campus or applied elsewhere, observers may have to look hard to find it. “The best sustainability is the things people won’t notice,” Clair observes. “We’ll see it on a balance sheet in the things we don’t purchase.”

Operating a Green Campus

Joseph Clair (M.S. MAE ’95), Director of Campus Energy and Sustainability

The University Sustainability Policy will serve as a framework for a centralized greening plan, which includes the further development of IIT operations initiatives that have begun in the past year.


The Perfect Power Prototype—one of the more ambitious and comprehensive new endeavors at IIT—will redefine the way the university acquires, produces, distributes, and uses energy. This project, led by the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) and in partnership with the Galvin Electricity Initiative and Exelon, is funded in part through a sizeable grant from the Department of Energy (DOE) announced in June 2008. The research project aims to model a flagship Perfect Power solution to the country’s energy problems—using IIT as a living laboratory.

Power outages cost the United States an estimated $150 billion annually. The one to three outages that IIT experiences each year result in nearly $500,000 in restoration costs, irrecoverable experiments, and lost productivity.

Perfect Power Prototype

Green Acres

The high-reliability distribution system of the Perfect Power Prototype at IIT will integrate various energy platforms across Main Campus. Each numbered loop represents a redundant system designed to increase the security and reliability of energy delivery.

IIT Recycling Plan

A more robust recycling program at IIT will include a website,, to keep the university community aware of specific recycling initiatives and how individuals can become involved.

The initiative will make IIT a prototype for improved efficiency, self-sustaining generation, and renewable energy applications based on a system of smart grids. Smart grids rely on a web of smart meters to monitor and dictate energy use at optimal times and costs. Mohammad Shahidehpour, ECE chair and a lead on the Perfect Power Prototype at IIT, likens smart meters to cell phone plans. “If you make a call on your cell phone after 9 p.m., the calls are cheaper,” he says.

With a smart grid, master controllers set up in every neighborhood receive signals from the utility company regarding the real-time cost of electricity. The master controllers communicate with chips inside home appliances, for example, and determine use based on the owners—preferred schedule and optimal times relative to cost, reducing the amount of electricity in the neighborhood or the city at any given time. “That’s a smart grid,” says Shahidehpour. “The price is a function of time. You’ll pay less.”

Through Perfect Power, IIT would be self-sustaining and more efficient in its electricity generation as well. IIT currently has its own central power plant—a gas-fired combined unit that can generate about 8 megawatts of power but that is used only for heating and hot water due to the high cost of gas. Because IIT uses a maximum of 12-14 megawatts during peak times, in the summer, this plant could provide approximately two-thirds of the university’s power, as opposed to purchasing power from offsite providers—the current, cheaper option.

By purchasing electricity in real-time and using onsite generation, IIT estimates that it could save from $500,000 to $1.5 million annually.

The five-year DOE grant will support the improvement of the campus infrastructure—the purchase of additional generating units, enhancement of existing buildings, and an upgrade of the cable system. This involves reassessing the entire power grid at IIT, which consists of a low-voltage distributed system that relies primarily on old, overworked underground cables. The grant will support another aspect of Perfect Power, the installation of solar panels on the rooftop of Siegel Hall and exploration of other renewable electricity generation.

Through Perfect Power, the IIT model will show lawmakers how a more innovative approach to the energy dilemma, including new laws and regulations, is needed if the country is to eliminate power outages and drive down the cost and pollution associated with electricity. The Perfect Power Prototype is scheduled to begin this fall.


The largest user of natural gas at IIT is the central heating plant, the culprit in many locales with long, cold winters. With modern hot-water systems running at 90 percent efficiency or greater, switching out old equipment saves both resources and money.

IIT has replaced a 60,000-pound boiler with two high-efficiency 20,000-pound boilers that can respond to seasonal changes in demand loads. This change alone is expected to save $425,000 in fuel costs each year and to reduce carbon emissions by 3.5 million pounds annually. IIT also began construction to install a high-efficiency hot water/steam plant on the east side of Main Campus. By upgrading its system, IIT is expected to reduce CO2emissions by 10.4 million pounds annually while better accommodating any future system upgrades.


This fall, IIT will unveil a new recycling program that it expects will increase recycling rates considerably. The more pervasive, transparent program will feature three major components: enhanced presence of recycling bins and stations throughout residences and common areas, increased training of support staff that handle recyclables, and an improved process for hauling, documenting, and reporting on the program’s progress.

A component of the reporting includes the launch of at the start of the academic year. The website will keep the community informed about the recycling initiative and what each person can do to make the program a success.


IIT is working with the city to turn 31st Street on campus into a permeable street. This includes exploring new methods of wastewater management, which would help IIT make more efficient use of water procured on Main Campus. Currently, any water reclaimed at IIT must travel through Chicago’s central water-reclamation facilities, located several miles away.


The average American generates 47 pounds of CO2per day, enough to fill 47 2.5-foot-wide balloons. Gasoline accounts for a third of this, with each gallon of gas producing 25.3 pounds of CO2. Another source of our carbon output is the electricity from coal and natural gas power plants, which produces an average of 1.34 pounds per kilowatt hour when in use.
Source: The National Geographic Green Guide, September 2007