History of Sustainability at UW–Madison

“No other university has its roots more deeply embedded in an ethos of conservation and stewardship. The ideas and actions of Wisconsin pioneers such as John Muir, Charles Van Hise, Aldo Leopold, and Gaylord Nelson are an inspiration in addressing one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century: how to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

UW–Madison Sustainability Task Force Final Report, October 2010

UW–Madison has a long tradition of conservation and stewardship that can be traced from the legacies of John Muir, Charles Van Hise, Aldo Leopold, and Gaylord Nelson. The values and influence of these thinkers endure on campus, both in spirit and in name (Muir Woods, Van Hise Hall, Leopold Hall, the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies).

A push toward operational sustainability began in the mid-1990s, spurred by Governor Tommy Thompson’s Wisconsin Energy Initiative. Throughout the next ten years, the university undertook a series of energy efficiency and water conservation upgrades, including lighting, plumbing, electric motors, and air handling systems.

We Conserve

In early 2006, Facilities Planning & Management staff at the university reassessed campus energy use and determined that additional gains were possible, particularly in the areas of heating and cooling. In April, the campus launched the We Conserve program with a goal of reducing campus energy use by an additional 20 percent by the year 2010.

The We Conserve initiative, led by Faramarz Vakili, conducted sophisticated energy modeling and retrofitting of more than 2 million square feet of space in campus buildings, including Engineering Hall, Chamberlin Hall, and the Chemistry Building. The efforts focused on upgrading air distribution systems, adding insulation in buildings and steam tunnels, and managing air handling and energy usage in laboratory spaces.

By the end of 2010, We Conserve exceeded its primary goal by achieving a 25 percent annual energy reduction relative to 2006 levels.

The reductions and savings reported by We Conserve include:

  • energy use: 1.2 trillion BTUs annually
  • carbon dioxide emissions: 125,000 metric tons annually
  • water use: 178,000,000 gallons annually
  • diesel fuel use: 10,000 gallons annually
  • utility costs: $13 million annually

In addition to cost and resource savings, these efforts contributed to national recognition. In 2010, the College Sustainability Report Card, an independent ranking prepared by the Sustainable Endowments Institute, awarded UW–Madison an “A” – its highest ranking – and named the school an Overall College Sustainability Leader.

Sustainability Initiative

We Conserve’s accomplishments in operational sustainability laid a foundation for growing interest and awareness of campus sustainability more broadly. Early in 2010, then-Chancellor Biddy Martin identified sustainability and global health as cross-campus strategic priorities and announced the UW–Madison Sustainability Initiative.

Provost Paul DeLuca and Vice Chancellor for Finance and Administration Darrell Bazzell convened a campus-wide Sustainability Task Force and charged it with recommending goals, policies, governance structure, and pilot projects related to sustainability for consideration by UW–Madison’s leadership and campus community.

The 17-member Task Force included a mix of faculty, staff and students and was chaired by Gregg Mitman, a professor of the history of science and interim director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies.

The Task Force created eight working groups in the areas of energy, food, health, transportation, campus environment, materials/consumption, governance, and communication. After several months, each group identified a series of goals, recommendations, and ideas related to their content area. These recommendations are included in the Sustainability Task Force Final Report, issued in October 2010.

One of the overall recommendations from the Task Force was the creation of a campus Office of Sustainability. The Office was charged with fulfilling UW–Madison’s sustainability mission to “align research and education on sustainability (our purpose) with campus operations (our practices) in the service of environmental, economic and social responsibility to people and the planet.”

The UW–Madison Office of Sustainability launched in March 2012 and now works to create a culture of sustainability on campus by instilling sustainability as a core individual value while aligning sustainability principles with campus goals, objectives, and activities.