Acequia flowing with recycled water. Photo by Zachary Mastroianni.

Palo Alto College supports sustainable projects

By Bianca Del Conte, Pulse staff writer

One of the earliest science concepts that we learn as children is that the Sun provides energy to plants on Earth to initiate the cycle of life. Sustainability is the more mature term used to explain a similar principle: Everything we need for our survival depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment.

The Alamo Colleges has adopted a sustainability policy (B.10.1) whose projects are created and guided by the Sustainability Council. According to the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency’s definition, sustainability “creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony.”

“I have been with Alamo Colleges for 10 years [and] this is something I have been working on…because every dollar that is saved out of the facilities budget stays in the…academic budgets,” said John Strybos, co-chairman of the Sustainability Council and Associate Vice Chancellor of Facilities. “It’s one less dollar we need from the taxpayers, [and] it’s one less dollar [students] have to pay in tuition.”

Palo Alto College has made several improvements to the campus to comply with the District’s sustainability policy and procedures. One of the procedures reads that “the College District recognizes that the purchasing decisions of its employees make a difference in favor of environmental quality.”

All interior lights of the major buildings have been replaced with more energy-efficient light bulbs and all exterior lights are expected to be replaced with energy-efficient light bulbs before the end of the semester. In 2009, Palo Alto College purchased green recycling bins for every classroom and common area in every building on campus to divert recyclables from the landfill. According to a municipal recycling survey in the March 2009 edition of Waste & Recycling News, San Antonio had the lowest recycling rate of 10 major cities in the U.S., a rate of 4 percent.

A major five-year project that has just been officially completed at PAC this month is the Science Exploration Laboratory and Interactive Center, located near the front of the Performing Arts Center and Ozuna Library. The project includes the addition of an acequia and a biofilter that will assist in harvesting and distributing water more efficiently, ultimately cutting costs at PAC.

The shimmering turquoise fountain flows with condensate from the library’s air-conditioning system that is caught and stored in the silver, 10,000 gallon water tank which stands nearly 15 feet tall outside of the library. The acequia also pumps water through an underground irrigation system to the botanical gardens nearby. The biofilter, located in the Performing Arts roundabout, acts as a drain for rainwater. Instead of the water collecting near the Loop 410 access road, it runs into the sunken biofilter through small grooves in the concrete. The biofilter is lined with not only beautiful plants, but it is also the base of a one-of-a-kind art sculpture created by PAC Art Professor Cakky Brawley.

Abel Gonzales, director of Gateway to College and head of the Title V STEM Grant used to fund the project, said that while the project seems like it should only be implemented in science and technology courses, he really hopes that all departments will incorporate visiting the site into their curriculum.

Palo Alto is not the only college campus that has made progress toward becoming a more sustainable campus. Northwest Vista is currently figuring out how to add solar panels to their new parking structure. San Antonio College is replacing its chiller and cooking towers to improve efficiency and energy conservation. St. Philip’s is introducing rain harvesting studies into their curriculum. Northeast Lakeview and PAC are constructing new thermal energy storage tanks.

“I think Palo Alto could help educate the student population about the dangers of pollution, not only to the environment but also to our health,” said sophomore Aurelia Palacios.

PAC offers three environmental science courses that satisfy the core curriculum: Environmental Biology 2306 and 2406 and Environmental Geology 1305.

The availability of green jobs in San Antonio is also promising. In 2011, Mayor Julian Castro teamed up with CPS Energy to introduce five clean technology companies that will bring hundreds of jobs to San Antonio.

“By building a critical mass around research and development that will grow and attract the brainpower of the 21st century, San Antonio can be for the new energy economy what Silicon Valley is to software and what Boston is to biotech,” Castro said, in an article by usgreentechnology.com titled “Clean Energy jobs moving to the Alamo City with help from CPS”.

Castro and CPS Energy have created an organization called the Mission Verde Alliance whose mission is for San Antonio to become the driver of the “New Energy Economy.”

SAC, St. Philip’s and NVC offer degree programs that relate to environmental science and alternative energy.

To learn more about sustainability, visit the Student Center Annex from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on America Recycles Day, November 15, a national event. For more information on the Alamo College District Sustainability Policy, please visit the Alamo Colleges district website.