Kristin Blackler

Kristin Blackler, MSU sustainability director, holds one of the bikes staff can use to get around campus. Behind her is one of the new bike racks that holds more bikes.

Montana State University has made great progress in saving energy and reducing tons of waste and greenhouse gases, but Kristin Blackler says lots more still needs to be done to improve sustainability.

“We’re going gangbusters,” Blackler, director of MSU’s sustainability office, said Wednesday, giving an update to about 30 University Council members. “I’m tremendously proud of what MSU is doing.”

The Bozeman campus has installed geothermal wells to reduce the power needed to heat and cool new Jabs Hall and Asbjornson Hall, which also has solar panels.

It has made the volunteer-run recycling program started by students into a regular campus operation, and created an academic minor in sustainability. It has replaced old lights with efficient LED bulbs, replaced big service pickups with a fleet of mini-trucks, and diverted 550,000 tons of food waste from dining halls to composting.

This year the rate of waste diverted from the landfill increased to 32%, surpassing the old goal of 25%, Blackler said. Greenhouse gas emissions shrank 20% between 2008 and 2016. Energy use, if counted per person on the growing campus, is down 38%.

“That’s huge,” she said. “What gets measured gets done.”

Terry Leist, MSU vice president for finance and operations, said he’s impressed by how well Blackler works with everyone from food service employees to faculty, and by the “huge gains” made through her work.

The energy savings from geothermal wells are so great that MSU plans to drill more wells for the new American Indian Hall that’s under construction.

It’s also looking into installing geothermal in conjunction with Romney Hall’s $32 million renovation, to serve several nearby buildings, Leist said.

Geothermal wells bring cool underground water up into buildings to cool them in summer and warm them in winter. The American Indian Hall will also have rooftop solar panels.

MSU won silver rating from the STARS program (Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System), in which more than 800 colleges are participating. The silver rating is in the middle of the pack. Blackler said her goal is that in two years MSU will earn a gold rating and she hopes someday to win a platinum rating.

The campus has also been recognized as a bee friendly, tree friendly and bike friendly campus, and its food service has earned awards for using local foods.

MSU’s new five-year strategic plan calls for developing a sustainability plan by 2020 with measurements and annual progress reports to the campus.

Asked her top priorities for the future, Blackler said a big issue is that thousands of people commute to campus in single-person cars every day, which produces lots of greenhouse gases.

“My fear is all the progress we’ve made in energy conservation will be eaten up by commuter vehicles as the campus grows,” she said.

She encourages students to ride the Streamline bus, walk or bike to campus, asking whether they would rather arrive feeling “relaxed and happy, or stressed out from looking for parking.”

One sign of that effort is that new “peak” bike racks have been installed around campus that store bikes at different levels so handlebars don’t bump, allowing twice as many bikes to fit in the same space.

“Gate” bikes have been set out for employees to ride from one end of campus to another. Free bike repair stations, equipped with tools and air pumps, have been installed at the Strand Union Building, Rendezvous dining hall and Outdoor Recreation.

Streamline recently doubled the number of runs on certain lines so passengers could catch a ride every half hour, which “makes a huge difference,” she said.

The sustainability office, located near the Procrastinator Theater, is also creating two new positions. The alternative transportation coordinator, Anna Price, will work on education and outreach to encourage students to use bikes and buses or walk. The office also is hiring a program coordinator to help measure greenhouse gases and tackle other projects.

One of the next steps, Blackler said, is evaluating whether the technology for electric vehicles is good enough now to work in Montana winters and start replacing some of the campus fleet of cars and trucks.

Several student clubs are dedicated to sustainability issues, led by Sustainability Now (SNow). Student projects range from promoting local foods to exchanging used clothing to putting solar panels on homes of reservation families.

“Students,” Blackler said, “are our biggest source of renewable energy.”

President Waded Cruzado praised Blackler for her hard work. “You have really transformed the culture of Montana State University,” Cruzado said, adding that this summer even she tried biking to work.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2633. Follow her on Twitter @gailnews.

Gail Schontzler covers schools and Montana State University for the Chronicle.

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