When we mention sustainability, we often reference the large-scale solutions that our climate catastrophe necessitates: global recycling systems, wind farms, solar power, electric cars, even ambitions to relocate our refuse to the moon. Not many of us speak of lighting retrofits. There is no poetry to staring at the ceilings of tired buildings and replacing harsh fluorescents.
But as former UW–Madison student Will Awve argues, we need these kinds of modest actions.
“The importance of a retrofit is you’re doing something people can observe and participate in on a daily basis,” he said. “People forget that there’s that connection between the lights that they turn on and coal being burned at a local power plant. People forget that they’re part of that cycle . . . By doing these lighting retrofits, you have a physical thing that people can see, that they use every day, and they can keep that in the back of their mind.”
In a series of interviews featured below, former UW-Madison students speak about their resistance to climate change through localized lighting projects sponsored by the UW–Madison Green Fund. Green Fund Program Manager Ian Aley estimates that the following projects will save the university approximately $23,000 and 163 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions—the equivalent of 29 Wisconsin homes’ electricity emissions—each year. The students who contributed to the initiatives speak of the economic and environmental benefits, as well as how the new lighting allows people on campus to work in more comfortable and productive spaces. They also relate how putting together and executing Green Fund proposals prepared them for their careers.
Gordon Dining & Event Center and Arboretum Visitor Center
Jessie Steckling did not major in Environmental Science, as she feared it would entail too much theory and not enough action, but she decided to join Helios, a student organization that works to implement renewable energy at UW–Madison. When Steckling joined the organization, Helios was already targeting the roof of Gordon Dining and Event Center as a site for solar panels.
“The main goal was to bring more solar to campus,” she said. “They were looking for a building that was really visible to all the students so that students could see that these solar panels were put in.”
The Office of Sustainability Green Fund approved Helios’s application for the project in 2018, and the organization received more than $45,000 to determine the proposed project’s feasibility, long-term costs, and potential concerns with maintenance and weather, as well as to fund the materials and installation costs of the solar array. After a year of Helios’s research and coordination with university partners, SunPeak, a Madison company, installed the panels on the roof of the dining hall. According to a press release, the solar panels “will provide University Housing with approximately $1,340 net annual income from renewable electricity production, resulting in at least $35,600 net income over the 30-year life of the system.”
“We knew that if we could give the university an example, they might be more encouraged to do more solar in the future,” Steckling said. “We wanted to use our panels to demonstrate that, even though we are in Wisconsin and it’s not the best place for solar energy because we don’t get a lot of sunlight, it still can be a good investment.”
Helios also envisioned replacing the building’s interior lighting, which was outdated and inefficient. In tandem with the solar project, the Green Fund provided $15,000 to purchase and replace all of the lights in behind-the-scenes work areas (kitchens, offices, hallways, storage spaces, etc.) and half of the lights in public spaces with energy-efficient LEDs. This amounted to 1,371 light bulbs, which is estimated to save the university more than $16,000 in electricity costs and 113 metric tons of CO2 each year.
“A big part of sustainability is looking at things as a pie chart: if you address just one of those sectors, you can only get so far,” Steckling said. “You have to address multiple areas to get the biggest savings.”
Steckling also took part in a Green Fund application to retrofit all of the lighting in the Arboretum Visitor Center, which was approved in the spring of 2020. The Arboretum wanted to increase the project’s visibility, so Steckling and her team members investigated ways they could publicize the retrofit. They also assisted in budgeting, as the project is utilizing $30,000 from the Green Fund, money contributed by the center’s donors, $17,500 from the Arboretum, and $57,000 from the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin’s Office of Innovation. Green Fund estimates that the installation of 574 energy efficient bulbs will save more than $4,500 and 32 metric tons of CO2 per year.
The Sierra Student Coalition helped with the application and research for the project. Simon Brooks, the current president of Helios, also contributed, in addition to his work on a related Green Fund project, which will lead to the installation of curved solar panels to supply campus bus shelters with lighting and informational displays.
Steckling graduated in 2021. She said she left campus having learned that “we have a lot of work to do.” This means more attention from leadership to the Sustainability Advisory Council, more lighting retrofits, and leadership declaring a divestment from fossil fuels, which the UW-Madison Faculty Senate and students across the entire UW system have called for in the past year.
“The university has been good about promoting environmental education and environmental research, but we’re behind in actual implementation,” Steckling said. “Even in the Big Ten we’re close to last.”
Steckling transferred her planning and communications skills from the Green Fund projects to a career working with software for Capital One Bank in Chicago. As with her experiences at UW, while she isn’t primarily working on sustainability, she hopes to continue sustainable actions.
“That might be something with lobbying or working with schools or local offices to make their buildings more sustainable,” she said. “I’ve always found the most success when you act as part of a group rather than as an individual, just because they have a lot more resources and direction.”
Slichter Residence Hall Bathrooms
When he was a freshman, Jacob Bartlett lived across from a bathroom in Slichter Hall. A member of the ASM Sustainability Committee, he realized the bathroom could use an efficiency project.
“I realized, every day I walk[ed] into the bathroom, the lights were always on,” he said. “I knew no one was going in there because … I could hear any time someone went in there.”
At that time, Bartlett knew little about electricity or light fixtures. Although he had apprenticed for his father, an electrician, one summer, the most he could do was distinguish between fluorescent and incandescent lights. But he possessed feeling and resolve.
“It was frustrating because I knew it was wasting so much energy,” he said. “Not only was it a waste of money, but it was releasing carbon into the atmosphere for no good reason.”
Bartlett enrolled in an independent study with Cathy Middlecamp, who was then the Director of Sustainability Education and Research and a Professor in the Nelson Institute, to research the problem and assemble an application to the Green Fund. Dr. Middlecamp helped him gather information about potential benefits for the university and determine whether replacing the lighting, or merely adjusting the motion sensor, would save the most money and emissions. Bartlett inventoried all of the building’s bathrooms, counting the numbers of lights, and approximated the cost as well as the economic and environmental benefits of replacement.
In the spring of 2019, the Green Fund awarded $960 to replace 112 light bulbs with LEDs, leading to approximate annual savings of $950 and 7 metric tons of CO2. Maintenance staff implemented the project that summer.
“I had zero knowledge about how it worked, and I had zero knowledge about how sustainability worked,” he said. “It showed me that anyone can make a difference in their community, and sometimes the most important changes are the small ones on a local level.”
Bartlett now works as a paralegal at a criminal defense law firm in Waukesha. He minored in Environmental Studies at UW–Madison and hopes his current job will prepare him for a future practicing environmental law for a state or federal organization, as he aspires to enforce environmental regulations and work with companies to reduce emissions.
“It goes to show that anyone can make a lasting change in their community if they just look around themselves and start thinking,” he said, reflecting on the lighting retrofit. “It doesn’t have to be a big, huge project throughout the entire university. Even just making a difference in your own residence hall is really important.”
Science Hall Room 70
Will Awve first learned about the Green Fund as a sophomore. At an Office of Sustainability event, he met two master’s students and spoke with them about the possibility of replacing the lighting in Science Hall, the beautiful but aging edifice towering over Park and Langdon, brick-laid in 1888 and registered as a National Historic Landmark in 1993.
“We toured the building,” Awve said, “and . . . in one particular room, an administrative office, everyone seemed to agree the lighting was unproductive, uncomfortable, sterile.”
The room flickered with fluorescents, some of which were brighter than others, making the room either too bright or too dim depending on where a person sat.
“We decided it would be a project that hit on all points of sustainability,” Awve said, referring to the environmental, social, and economic aspects of sustainability. “So this was the perfect project.”
In the fall of 2019 the Green Fund accepted Awve’s application for a retrofit. To budget and plan the project—including logistical questions such as when the installation would happen and where the old bulbs would go—Awve met with administrators, Facilities Planning & Management, Green Fund Program Manager Ian Aley, and Focus on Energy, the Madison company that works to facilitate savings with efficient utilities.
The Green Fund contributed $8,300 to replace 48 bulbs in the summer of 2020, creating an estimated annual savings of $230 and 2 metric tons of CO2.
Awve was happy to implement the project in the offices of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies.
“To go right to … the people who are caring for the environment on campus and do this project was a testament to what they stand for and what they teach,” Awve said. “It shows that we’re teaching students what to do and what the issues are, and we’re enabling them to do something about them.”
“It’ll probably make people more productive [and] maybe improve the moods in the entire office,” he continued. “Hopefully they come into the office and they’re excited about the lighting and notice it every day when they come in.”
Awve went on to earn a sustainability certificate and join the Ethical and Responsible Business Network (ERBN) as a sustainability consultant. His senior year, he interned with the Office of Sustainability, for which he helped coordinate UW–Madison’s involvement with the Zero Waste Atlas Fellowship. He credits his involvement with the Green Fund and the Office of Sustainability for career opportunities after graduation: first he worked for SunPeak, the solar commercial company that installed the panels on the roof of Gordon and the Arboretum Visitor Center, and now he works as an energy market research analyst for Cadmus, an international strategic environmental consulting firm.
“It seems like in every interview I’ve had since I left UW, I’ve been able to call on those exact experiences,” he said of the Green Fund. “People are mainly interested in, How do you do with meetings? If you’re able to facilitate a meeting with a client, partners, or colleagues. I say, ‘Of course, I’ve been doing that since sophomore year of college when we worked with Science Hall.’”
“That has been the most helpful: becoming comfortable with meeting new people and that professional etiquette you need to get things done.”
Grainger Hall Loading Dock and Medical Science Center Room 3265
Ryan Rosen graduated from UW–Madison in December 2021, and he’s hoping to work as a consultant for a firm that specializes in sustainability. Looking back on his projects with the Green Fund, he recognizes how they influenced his job search.
“Especially after joining Green Fund and being able to work on different kinds of energy audits, it has propelled me into what I want to do in the future, which is something relating to environmental sustainability consulting,” he said. “Being on the Green Fund showed me exactly what my strengths are. I love research and love to problem-solve. That’s the basis of tackling sustainability.”
He studied Environmental Science at UW–Madison, with a special interest in building efficiency. To earn his Sustainability Certificate, he needed to fulfill a community engagement requirement, which demanded 40 hours of work . This led to his involvement on the lighting retrofit at the Grainger Hall loading dock, for which the Green Fund provided $5,000 in the spring of 2021.
With a group of other students, Rosen met with faculty members and Focus on Energy, a company that calculates rebates, incentives, and return-on-investment. They also determined additional changes to conserve energy.
“When we were touring the original site, we were just talking about upgrading the lights,” he said. “But what about the time the lights are on? I suggested motion sensors.”
The dock had a motion sensor, but it wasn’t saving electricity. It had been set to turn off the lights after 30 minutes without detecting motion, and, according to surveillance footage Rosen reviewed, the lights were active for more than 20 hours per day. Though busy, the dock wasn’t used for the entirety of that span, and by adjusting the sensor to turn off the lights after 15 minutes without activity, Rosen and his team reduced the operating time by three hours per day and the electricity consumption by 14 percent.
Last summer, Rosen visited the site during the retrofit to see building technicians replace some of the 96 bulbs, which the Green Fund projects will save almost $1,300 and 9 metric tons of CO2 per year.
“We got to speak with some of the people who work in the Grainger Loading Dock, and they loved the lighting—the color of the lighting, the strength of the lighting,” Rosen said. “They appreciated not only how it does save energy but also the final product and how the light comes out in front of them.”
Rosen said the project wasn’t a “revolutionary idea, but being able to contribute as a student to worthwhile ideas that get put into use is really cool.” He emphasized that the route to change winds through small actions.
“Any university has such a big pull to the surrounding area, it’s important even for the little things to happen,” he said. “Even though it’s a small upgrade, it’s important that students like me were able to be on these projects, make a difference, have a voice, and learn these processes.”
Rosen also applied for a lighting retrofit in Room 3265 of the Medical Science Center, which the Green Fund approved this spring. $1,250 will go to replacing the lights with LEDs that allow users to control their intensity (brightness), hues (from white to golden light), and distribution (which parts of the room are lighted). In addition to giving instructors the ability to adjust the lights, the project will provide them with four presets that change the lighting depending on the situation:
- a warmer, lower-level light for discussion work;
- a brighter, whiter light for testing;
- lighting adjusted for sunny days, which switches off the lights closest to the windows;
- an AV setting, which lights the instructor but dims the rest of the room.
Missy Nergard, the Director of the Office of Sustainability; Sue Wenker, a professor in the Physical Therapy Program; and Mati Arndt, a graduate student in the PT program, will conduct a research study to determine the effect of lighting on student learning.
“It’s going to save energy just like the lighting project we did at Grainger,” Rosen said, “but it’s also going to provide different students with different abilities better lighting to focus in different environments.”
The project differs from the others because it challenged Rosen to learn how to formulate research questions and plans. Now that he has graduated, he hopes the installation will lead to significant findings and that the Office of Sustainability’s lighting projects will continue to save energy at UW.
“Energy upgrades, efficiency upgrades, lighting upgrades—they’re such a simple thing to do that can be implemented anywhere in the world that can save so much money and [benefit] the environment,” he said. “Any small impact matters.”
By: Marek Makowski