Larry Hopp – director of the Creighton University Energy Technology program (creighton.edu/ccas/energytechnologyprogram), and a civil engineer with 40 years of industry experience
What role do you and your organization play in sustainability?
I would like to start with the definition of sustainability. From my perspective, “sustainability” is a little bit like “green”, and there are a lot of people who throw the term around…I look at sustainability as basically the focus to sustain God’s creation for the ongoing betterment of all mankind. And sustainability impacts really every aspect of our life so the conservation must be holistic, weighing benefits against potential harm. To me, that is an important distinction because sustainability and a lot of the related terms can sometimes become political and that tends to distract from the importance and underlying focus. Creighton, specifically our Energy Technology program, we’re here from the very inception of our program to develop sustainable energy leaders that have outstanding problem-solving skills. And that’s accomplished through a kind of non-traditional, pedagogical approach where we give our students education and they go out into communities and practice that education. That can be everything from they designed a renewable energy system for a hospital in Nigeria to they’re doing service work for schools and nonprofits here in the Omaha area, energy audits and renewable designs and things of that nature. So it’s that hands-on approach that I think is really key to developing the leadership that we’re hoping to provide for society. But there are two other elements in the role that we play here. We’re trying to develop a solid understanding and appreciation (for) sustainability as it applies to both the home and work environment in all aspect of our students’ lives. Because if they’re going to be real problem-solvers and make a difference positively for sustainability, they have to start out with a basic understanding of how sustainability really is a thread in all aspects of their lives. And to get back to definition of sustainability on God’s creation, Creighton as a Jesuit institute focuses upon service and reflection throughout the student’s entire time here. And I think that’s really crucial in creating leaders who are really equipped to not only effectively discuss sustainability but also to help solve all the of the problems energy demands and sustainability and all the of the nuances of that concept fit throughout the world.
What elements of negative human impact concern you most, generally and in your area of expertise?
Energy is crucial in improving the whole human condition throughout the world. It is not a bad thing. Basically, energy is not always used efficiently nor created effectively. We know of the different venues and the challenges with so many of them on energy production, which is why we’re looking significantly toward renewable energy. But we want to improve energy production across the board because that’s part of sustainability; you need to make everything more effective and efficient. So if we can make energy consumption more effective—and there’s a statistic that says that in Nebraska alone, if we were to focus upon energy efficiency in all of the buildings in Nebraska, we would save enough energy to satisfy 85 percent of our growing energy demand over the next 10 to 20 years. So it’s a big deal to focus on energy conservation. So I think the simple fact that 90 percent of the people are so busy in their lives that they don’t connect with, it really doesn’t impact…that’s the biggest negative human impact I see, that people just really aren’t aware and their lives are so wrapped up that they really don’t have the time or patience to engage with sustainability. The best way to overcome that, I believe, is to start out with the economics of energy use. However busy you are, every family has to be concerned about the bottom line cost and the economics, and if you can help them save money and they do that by sustainable energy conservation, it can open the dialog and then it can lead to a significant improvement and change.
What good news is out there regarding sustainability?
There is significant momentum in LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design), Green Globes and Energy Star; those are three international programs that push the sustainability envelope. This trend basically is focused upon improving energy but it covers all aspects of sustainability, which is really important because it’s changing the focus of how products are manufactured, how the raw materials are gathered and put into projects, how it’s transported. Because all of those are energy users. And whether it can be re-used, which gets into the terms “cradle-to-grave” vs. “cradle-to-cradle” where you don’t take anything to the landfill, you just recycle it and use it again. Not so much Energy Star, but LEED and Green Globes really focus heavily on how we get materials, how they’re used—which is all the sustainability part—and basically, if you look at studies that have been done…and I stand corrected, that’s 85 percent, that’s not just Nebraska, that’s across the United States. If we would take the low-hanging fruit, which is the term that’s normally used on energy savings, on all of the buildings across the United States and engage that, we’d save so much energy that we would have, I think, 85 percent of the future demand in the United States with the potential of generating—the statistic I have is—2.5 million jobs across the country. So it’s a big deal. And if you look into the details of LEED, which has been around since, I believe, 2003, so it’s about 12 years or so. What they’ve got is 12,870 membership organizations across the United States and around the world and of course we have organizations here in Nebraska. There’s over 197,000 LEED professionals. In my former job I took the task and taught classes on LEED accreditation so people could understand, and in fact I’m teaching the same classes here. What is really breathtaking, I think, looking for good news, is LEED is certifying 1.5 million square feet of building space, that’s home and commercial, every day, around the world. To get certified, you have to go through a wide range of sustainable elements, so that’s a big deal. If you look at totals since their inception, they have over 10 billion—with a “b”—square foot of building space with a sustainable LEED focus. That’s really, really good news that most people don’t think about._Then you look at a little closer to home and of course there’s LEED buildings across Omaha, and there’s four different levels and the highest level is LEED platinum. And we’ve got LEED platinum buildings around Omaha and the Midwest. Another really good news is that utility companies are increasingly focusing upon renewable energy sources, particularly wind energy. OPPD has a significant push, a larger percentage of their energy supply will be through wind. They have a lot of large wind farms in Nebraska and of course over in Iowa Mid-America has got tons of wind power. And the final really good news, I believe, is that legislators are using their power to encourage home renewable energy. While technology gains continue to drive down costs, making photovoltaic as well as well as wind energy viable for today’s homeowner—and I think right today it’s most viable for photovoltaic and solar energy on the home scale—but we’ve got some vertical wind turbines that are really coming down in their price and improving in their efficiency that would work for homes as well. The good news that I bring is from the practical side, could we do better? But we are making gains. And when you look at the size of a million and a half square feet a day is being certified each day for LEED sustainability, that’s a big number and that is good news. Because while maybe it’s not changing the planet and it’s not in some of the political debates, it is making a significant difference. I think people tend to respond better through hope and that’s what I like about Creighton, quite frankly.
What needs to be done first and by whom locally?
From my experience, the only thing that works is you have to touch people where they’re at. Winning hearts through cost savings, I believe, is the answer because it opens the doors to all aspects of sustainability. The only way that you get across-the-board embracing of sustainability is you start with that, and I guess to me, it’s critical that we keep the discussion open and non-political because if the goal is to open minds and change hearts to sustainability and the ongoing stewardship of our planet, you’ve got have to have people listen. And heated debate tends to shut that off. There is probably 10 or 15 percent of the population that is passionate about sustainability but we need the other 85 or 90 percent of folks. And the only way to do that is to touch their hearts and help change them._What are the most important actions individuals here can take to make a difference? We have to change the paradigm of how people think about sustainability, and that’s the first step if we truly want to make a difference. Everybody seems to think “my life is so busy that that has to be somebody else’s problem”. We need to make significant improvements of the little things in how we live our lives because the little choices we make every day do impact the world. We just have to become aware of that impact. It sounds trite, but I do believe that knowledge coupled with a responsible caring attitude will provide the consistent sustainable improvements that we need. If the goal is to touch people’s hearts, how then do we get that? Do we do it through heated debate or do we get there by going where people are and helping them gradually see “I can save 20 percent of my utility bill and that would leave me more money for my family and part of that savings is saving sustainable conservation” and “By the way, I’m creating a better planet for my kids.” And that makes sense.
What do you wish more people here knew regarding sustainability?
Sustainability is neither a passing fad nor an impractical dream. It really impacts every part of our everyday life. Here in Omaha and the Midwest we have extremely economical energy and water and so that tends to lead people to sustainability apathy, quite frankly. We have a responsibility to care about all of God’s creation and understanding how our lives impact others. It is so much easier to connect with people in Hawaii or Alaska or on the coast, where energy is obscenely expensive, than it is here. If you travel around the country and you see the water shortages in Texas or California, there’s not an unlimited supply of natural water. When we’re teaching the classes here, you can talk about these things and the light comes on.
What resources can help people here learn and understand more about the issue?
We have to be careful how we’re conveying that message, because there are a ton of very effective things going on every day. If you have a passion for sustainability you can find all sorts of things, not just on Earth Day. To be effective you have to embrace more people and you have to change the focus so it’s not so much on the political hot buttons as the real world of time and economics your family can save money on energy. That might be self-serving, but I really think energy conservation is the answer. And government, energy providers, schools K-12 as well as university, the media, as well as friends and family––we all can engage, and if we can all just figure out that it’s not a passing fad and it really does make a difference. When all of these folks in their newsletters and all the things they have going day in and day out help people grasp how easy it is to save energy and money using sustainable concepts—once that soaks in, it will lead to a deeper understanding and appreciation which moves the ball down the field. It’s something I’m fairly passionate about because in the engineering world that I came from, it was awfully, awfully easy for people to say, “Yeah, right, you’re a sustainability guy, I’m busy, don’t bother me.” You say, “You spend $10 million a year in utilities and I have 30 percent low hanging fruit; I can put a $3 million check on your desk tomorrow.” I have never lost an argument to a business or individual home if start out with saying, “Let’s save you some money through sustainability initiatives and by the way, here’s the other benefits you get.” Hit them in the pocketbook with economics and then you have their attention.