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ESF Hosts Inaugural SUNY Leaders Sustainability Summit

SUNY Chancellor delivers keynote, marking first speech in CNY

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By Claire B. Dunn

More than 150 leaders from throughout The State University of New York (SUNY) system convened at the College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) today (Oct. 10) for a daylong summit focused on defining opportunities for sustainability partnerships and sparking new ideas for advancing sustainability throughout the SUNY network.

The SUNY Leaders Sustainability Summit drew presidents, provosts, and research and sustainability leaders to ESF's Gateway Center from campuses across the state and the system's administrative office in Albany. Their goals were to:

  • assess the state of sustainability within SUNY, and throughout New York state and the nation
  • exchange information about sustainability, resiliency and environmental research
  • explore the potential of sustainability storytelling
  • define opportunities for sustainability partnerships and ideas to advance sustainability throughout the SUNY network

"Sustainability is central to ESF's mission. We are in the business of educating tomorrow's environmental leaders, conducting research that creates new possibilities for a sustainable future, and informing and inspiring the public to adopt the best of those options," said ESF President Quentin Wheeler. "As the number two green campus in the country, ESF is a natural location for this first-ever SUNY event."

Summit highlights included a keynote address this morning by SUNY Chancellor Kristina M. Johnson, who took office in September. Johnson came to SUNY with a strong background in sustainability, having served as co-founder and CEO of Cube Hydro Partners, LLC, a clean-energy infrastructure company focused on building and operating hydropower plants in North America. She previously served as undersecretary of energy at the U.S. Department of Energy, where she was responsible for unifying and managing a broad $10.5 billion energy and environment portfolio.

Johnson said SUNY has a singular opportunity to provide leadership in providing pilot programs to scale up energy conservation measures.

"With 2,800 buildings (systemwide), imagine the impact we could have if we were able to weatherize and reduce the energy consumption of those buildings at scale," she said. "That's the power of SUNY. We have 64 campuses. We have educational programs. We do research and applied learning."

With 40 percent of energy being consumed by buildings, Johnson said, SUNY's educational programs are poised to be a factor in scaling up energy efficiency.

"That's where SUNY can come in. That's where we can provide the students and the applied learning opportunities to be able to do this at scale," Johnson said. "Our sustainability leadership and professionals, you're the ones on the front line who set the goals, collect the data, look for the impact and set the next goals. This collective vision is why I came to SUNY; because I wanted to work with teams of individuals who see an opportunity to better our communities and deploy the best ideas at scale across SUNY, across the state and across the country."

The afternoon keynote speaker was Venetia Lannon, the New York state deputy secretary for the environment, who spoke of New York's leadership in the environmental field and said SUNY is in the position to lead the development of a new bioeconomy.

"We really have leadership in the environmental field in the person of Gov. Andrew Cuomo," Lannon said, pointing to the state's Environmental Protection Fund, investment in clean water infrastructure and participation in the U.S. Climate Alliance.

She shared a vision for sustainability: a system that is regenerative, not extractive and that uses renewable power, not fossil fuel.

"When we move explicitly to keep fossil fuels in the ground, we are doing more than stopping a source of carbon pollution," Lannon said. "We're opening up whole new opportunities, whole new economies and, hopefully, whole new ways of seeing the natural world around us. "

This bioeconomy is an exciting silver lining to what seems sometimes like a grim future, she said. Citing ESF's work in biomimicry, bioplastics and Traditional Ecological Knowledge, Lannon said, "ESF and the SUNY system are poised at the vanguard of this new economy."

"I don't think there are any environmental problems that we can't solve if SUNY and the state of New York put our collective hearts and minds to that problem," she said.

"Let's take the physical campus of SUNY and let's use it as a living lab. Not just for renewable energy but for making tall buildings out of wood and for installing heat pumps and for maximizing weatherization," she said. "Let's be the change we would like to see in the rest of the state and in the rest of the country."

The summit featured a wide-ranging lineup of panel discussions and audience input, including:

  • SUNY State of Sustainability Panel with the SUNY Sustainability Coalition The panelists were, Marc Cohen, president of the SUNY Student Assembly and a graduate of the University at Albany; Mary Ellen Mallia, director of the Office for Environmental Sustainability, University at Albany; Ryan A. McPherson, the chief sustainability officer at the University at Buffalo; and Sean Vormwald, director of sustainability and environmental health and safety at Onondaga Community College. The moderator was Karren Bee-Donohoe, associate vice chancellor in the SUNY Office for Capital Facilities.
  • National Sustainability Panel The participants were Dr. Timothy Carter, president of Second Nature; and Meghan Fay Zahniser, executive director of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. The moderator was Mark Lichtenstein, chief of staff and chief sustainability officer at ESF.
  • SUNY Capital Facilities Services and NYSERDA Higher Education Initiative The panelists were Bee-Donohoe and Jeffrey M. Peterson, senior advisor for entrepreneurship with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA).
  • The Power of Sustainability Storytelling The participants were Dan Reed, executive director at Planet Forward, George Washington University; and Zachary Smith, an ESF student majoring in environmental studies.
  • Audience Participation: SUNY Coming Together around Sustainability This session featured facilitated engagement of the audience to define opportunities for sustainability partnerships throughout the SUNY network.

In addition to panel discussions and work sessions, the summit included tours of the biomass-fueled combined heat-and-power plant in the Gateway Center, and the building's green roof, which features native species and plant communities from New York state.