Ryan Kmetz, Assistant Director of Sustainability and Energy Management.

Sustaining Innovation

Deborah Dudley

With expectations very high on what constitutes innovation, especially in the arena of energy and sustainability, Deborah Dudley, editor of St. Lawrence magazine, sat down with Ryan Kmetz, assistant director of sustainability and energy management, to talk about how St. Lawrence is pursuing progress. 

Deborah Dudley (DD): It seems that when it comes to college campuses, innovation isn’t always big dramatic changes, but instead it is often incremental and more a matter of reinvention and strategic adjustments. So, can incremental changes and innovations on the small scale still have a big impact?

Ryan Kmetz (RK): As far as innovation goes, I think a lot of people have this misconception that you need to be like a Tesla and have a major breakthrough that changes an entire industry. But, on a smaller scale, you don’t necessarily have to do that. It’s more about very simple things that all of us can do or change that are going to make a big difference.
Think of LEDs. Ten years ago, LEDs were a nascent technology and very cost ineffective. Now that the price point for LEDs has dropped, facilities can take advantage of both the savings on the bulbs as well as the energy savings they provide when they fill several hundred sockets across campus. You’re going from 60 watts to 9 watts, and in the end, you get a snowball effect coming down the hill—a lot of little changes that are going to end up as a very big snowball.

DD: How does the idea of invention, reinvention and innovation fit with where sustainability is going both within higher education and in the private sector?

RK: Sustainability requires systems thinking. Part of that is constantly re-evaluating everything and trying to identify interactions and ways systems interact or people interact and improve them while lessening their impact. Impact doesn’t always manifest in dramatic changes, like the installation of a solar array. Sometimes, innovation is just using different language or framing a problem in a new way. 

DD: We are not a homogenous campus, so different people are going to view sustainability very differently. How do you figure out how to communicate with everybody on the same terms?

RK: One of the first things I did was collaborate with the sustainability committee about what definition of sustainability St. Lawrence was going to use to inform the campus strategies. I recommended the classic definition used by both the Environmental Protection Agency and the United Nations, which basically says you’re doing the best you can within the resources you have in order to preserve a healthy living environment for future generations without impacting your current lifestyles and operations.
We all need to really be talking apples to apples, and working on that communications is part of the challenge, especially on college campuses. 

DD: What are some of the unique challenges that face higher education specifically when it comes to tackling sustainability issues and fostering a culture of innovation?

RK: Your demographics are renewing every four years essentially, which gives you a huge advantage and a huge disadvantage. It’s an advantage because most students are in the mindset of being open to new ideas, exploring new things, and finding out what their passions are. That provides you with an excellent environment to teach them what sustainability means and to create unique experiences to supplement their college experience. The downside is that you go into the new year knowing that some of these really smart and talented student leaders are going to soon graduate and transition into the next phase of their lives.  
Every year you have an influx of new ideas. It could come from your first-years or from students moving up, maturing and identifying things by thinking differently. It is really special to try and harness that energy because we have passionate folks who are very intelligent, who really want to move things forward.

DD: How do you work with the students to bridge the conceptual with the feasible?

RK: Honestly, it’s very similar to writing a paper. You start with an idea, move to a rough draft, and polish it a few times before you turn it in. For example, sometimes, you might have a great idea but you don’t consider, “will the building structurally handle this change?” or “who is going to pay for this change?” It is trying to take that creative energy and channel it to be as productive as we possibly can, within the boundaries that we have.

DD: In the early 2000s, universities and colleges were among the first to talk about greenhouse gases and carbon emissions. How is higher education today leading the conversation of how sustainability can be advanced with a better understanding of diversity and inclusion?

RK: What sustainability might mean to a kid who grew up in St. Lawrence County versus a kid who grew up in the Bronx is going to be two completely different things. They each have had very unique experiences, and if we can get the kid from the Bronx to talk to the kid from a farm in Madrid (New York), perhaps they can work together to come up with innovative ideas.
I’m always telling people there are no bad ideas, they just might not be feasible ideas at this time.

DD: There are many who dismiss the conversation when they hear the term ‘climate change’ or “sustainability.” Do we need to innovate on how we engage people on sustainability?

RK: A prime example is the ‘go green’ phrase. It started off with the best intentions, and now in some circles, it has almost a negative connotation. It has lost the original purpose behind it. People, whether they be professionals, professors, or students are figuring out creative ways to talk about climate change without ever saying ‘climate change.’ 
If you go into a town and you say, ‘climate change,’ maybe half the room dismisses you right away. If you go into a town and you ask people, ‘can you tell me about extreme weather, or flooding,’ nobody in the room is going to walk out because they all have experienced it. It is really knowing where to draw those connections and appreciate the knowledge in the room.

DD: What is St. Lawrence doing right now?

RK: We are constantly evaluating new opportunities from a facilities perspective of how to improve what we have. There are very easy things like LEDs and insulation, weatherizing with caulking, which are easy and are not even a sustainability thing, they are just best practices in facilities. 
But we have a lot of big projects happening as well. The University is very aggressive about renewables with a long-term Power Partnership Agreement (PPA) for hydro-power that started generating in November of 2016 and a plan to consider adding a solar PPA. Also, St. Lawrence recently received a $112,500 grant from NYSERDA to develop a new energy master plan. 
We are also working on a new climate action work plan summarizing what St. Lawrence has done over the past ten years towards its climate neutrality commitment and outlining new ideas developed by the University to implement in the next year, such as online resources and interactive web mapping of green spaces and facilities.

DD: Overall, what do you think is key to moving forward on sustainability initiatives at all levels? 

RK: There are some misconceptions that you have to be a tree-hugger to be into sustainability or that sustainability is going to cost you money. If you know what you are doing, you can do it in a budget-neutral fashion. Many corporations are making changes in ways that save them money in the long run, whether it be reduced energy, materials, or compliance costs. 
Sustainability almost has this bad rap of being something only privileged organizations can afford to do, whereas that is not really the case. It is how you think about it, how you do your operations, because if you just fine-tune a little bit, you can make huge change that costs almost no money or saves money and is better for the environment and the next generation.