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UB Green’s Walter Simpson

In this month’s Buffalo Rising Magazine (hard copy) you will find the first half of this interview, conducted by our David Staba, with UB’s Mr. Green himself, Walter Simpson. An engaging, energetic, and passionate man, we couldn’t think of anyone better to kick off green month.
This is a rather long interview, but we hope you’ll enjoy it to the end. When Walter Simpson expounds, there’s much to be learned.
-ECB

Walter Simpson went off to Lehigh University in 1967, planning to become a nuclear physicist.
Forty years later, he did wind up in the energy business, but in a very different way. As the director of UB Green, a position he lobbied to create and has held for 25 years, Simpson has overseen comprehensive overhauls of the way the University at Buffalo’s campuses in Amherst and Buffalo are powered, leading to millions in savings and more environmentally friendly facilities.
He also walks the walk, in an Amherst home powered with solar energy generated by photovoltaic cells on its roof.
“It looks great, by the way,” Simpson said during an interview in the library of the UB Green offices on Winspear Avenue. “It looks like part of our house could take off at any time.”
The debate over the Vietnam War started Simpson’s evolution from aspiring nuclear scientist to environmental advocate, a journey that has included earning a bachelor’s degree in philosophy at Boston University, a master’s in the same field of study at UB, as well as a second master’s in environmental studies and serving a stint as director of the Western New York Peace Center in the 1970s.
Simpson, who is 58 and is married with two children, has managed to balance his conscience with his job. In 2000, he led an effort to prevent the university from resuming the spraying of pesticides on campus lawns in order to wipe out UB’s dandelion population. The campaign pitted students, faculty and members of the community against the administration of then-President William Greiner, which wanted a university that was green, but not yellow.
The dandelions, and their supporters, won that battle.
BRM: What are you working on now?
WS: The big thing is that President (John) Simpson, who is no relation, recently signed this American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment. It’s about 150 campuses out of about 4,000 in the country that have now signed on, so we’re one of the first.
We want to position ourselves as a leader – we’ve been a leader in energy and environmental issues for a while and we want to stay there. I think his early signing of the agreement demonstrates the leadership that we want to have in this area.
What it says is that UB will, over as short a time as possible and frankly, it could be 10 years, that we will become a net-zero greenhouse-gas emitting campus, a climate-neutral campus. We have strengths in that area already, so it wasn’t kind of a wild, impulsive thing to agree to. But it is a huge challenge.
Right now, we are very dependent on fossil fuels. We use half a billion cubic feet of natural gas a year for heating and we use 200 million kilowatt hours of electricity for everything else, including some heating. And at least 50 percent of that is fossil-fuel driven.
So to kick the fossil-fuel habit, we need to do more conservation and efficiency so that we can further reduce the energy that’s used in our buildings. We’ve already done a lot, so it’s harder. The low-hanging fruit, a lot of it has been picked.
We want to do more green-power purchasing. UB is one of the largest purchasers of wind power. We might be the largest in New York State and we’re one of the largest in the country. We purchase 12 million kilowatt hours of wind. And we’re going to have to reduce the amount of electricity we use and it will all have to be green.
Then, we can look at more on-site renewable energy development. Right now, we’ve got the largest photovoltaic array in Western New York, on Norton Hall.
It’s a very impressive installation, but it provides a very small fraction of the electricity we use. So we need to look at opportunities on campus to generate power from the sun and power from the wind right here.
We’ll see how far that goes. I’m not sure whether the university is ready to have turbines on campus, but we have a lot of wind. And we have a lot of sun, in the summer, especially.
BRM: Are you considering buying power from the Steel Winds project in Lackawanna?
WS: While we have to follow all the purchasing rules for a state agency, I would love to be buying wind energy from our local wind farm. And if they want to expand that wind farm, I would love for the university to be in negotiation with them about a possible long-term contract for the next phase.
We want to use our buying power to promote good, green things, especially here in Western New York and more wind is certainly an option here on the windy side of Lake Erie.
BRM: Aside from purchasing wind power locally, how do the university’s environmental efforts extend off-campus?

WS: There’s going to be some piece of our fossil-fuel reliance that we’ll still have. I mean, unless we can figure out another way to produce steam, we’re still going to be burning some natural gas. That’s where carbon offsets come in. A carbon offset is something that you either create or you buy that reduces carbon emissions elsewhere. If you want to become net-zero emitting carbon, you create an offset or you buy an offset that is equal to that amount of carbon dioxide you’re still putting into the air.
For example, UB could purchase offsets – and there’s a market for them, and you buy them for so many dollars per ton of carbon dioxide – and they would finance energy conservation or renewable-energy development somewhere else. It could be locally, it could be nationally, it could be globally – the world doesn’t care where the carbon dioxide comes from.
What I would like to see the university do, and this is an incredible opportunity, is you’ve got the city of Buffalo with lots of opportunities for energy conservation and carbon dioxide-emission reduction.
Why not use the university’s resources – not just capital resources, but mental resources, expertise – to help homeowners and businesses and municipalities in Western New York save energy, switch to renewable energy and reduce carbon dioxide emissions, then legitimately take credit for some fraction of that reduction as our offset. It wouldn’t have happened without us, and so some piece of that, we created. And create it on a scale so that it mitigates the carbon dioxide we’re still putting into the atmosphere as a result of our continued use of natural gas.
I mean, here we are with an incredible public-service opportunity to the rest of the community, while meeting our obligation under that climate pledge.
BRM: What are the biggest opportunities for making Buffalo greener?
WS: The houses in Buffalo are all older – they’re 100-year-old homes. Probably a large fraction of them are not well insulated, a lot of people don’t have energy-efficient appliances or compact lights or all the conservation measures that would be standard in a conserving home.
There are plenty of opportunities to launch conservation programs in the wider community that will help address the homeowner. Then everybody who is helped has lower bills, so economic vitality is one of the products, as well. The less energy that’s purchased or consumed in Western New York, the more dollars stay right here in the community to be recycled into other economic activity, so there’s a multiplier effect.
In New York State, something like 95 percent of energy comes from outside the state. So whenever we consume energy, we’re just sending dollars outside of New York. So the less we need, the lower our energy costs, plus the more dollars here being spent on other things. So that’s one place to go.
I think helping municipalities is a big thing. Mayor Masiello signed the U.S. Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement, which has now been signed by almost 400 cities across the country. What it says is not much activity is happening at the federal level for obvious political reasons, but we know this is a big problem, and so the cities that sign this agreement are going to reduce emissions within their boundaries to an extent equivalent to what would be required if we were a party to the Kyoto Protocol. Which is essentially 7 percent by 2010 compared to 1998.
So Buffalo is listed as a signatory, but I’m not sure Byron Brown knows about it. So not much has happened here. Niagara Falls is a signatory. Amherst could be, if there was an interest at the government level. I would love to see our municipalities sign on to that agreement and then give them the intellectual means, as well as if we can support them in other ways, to meet those obligations.
I think also the Spitzer administration is poised to help. There was a lot of progress made under George Pataki. He did the regional greenhouse gas initiative, the renewable portfolio standards – very, very important programs. And I think Spitzer is a stronger environmentalist than Pataki as governor. So I’m among those environmentalists in New York State who is expecting great things from Eliot Spitzer.
Another area where I think either the university can help or public pressure and citizen activism can help is just looking at our reliance on coal. We’ve got a bunch of coal-burning power plants regionally and some interest in either continuing the use of coal or expanding the use of coal. Without carbon sequestration, you’re just dumping all of this carbon dioxide into the air. It’s certainly possible for the university to help develop the technologies for carbon sequestration.
And I would also like to see the university as well as citizen activists helping communities like Jamestown find another way to meet energy needs as opposed to building a new coal-fired power plant. When I say that, I’ve got to be very clear that I’m not speaking on behalf of the university or UB Green, because that’s a personal opinion. I’m involved in that issue, but as an activist in my own time.
BRM: What’s the status of the energy project here on the South Campus?
WS: It’s midstream right now. We’re looking at lighting, heat recovery, new equipment that’s more efficient, like chillers, kind of the full gamut of measures. In these comprehensive projects you do a survey of every building on the campus and anything that looks cost-effective, you try to build it into the project and let it all be paid for by energy savings.
BRM: Is it more of a challenge here than out there because you have a lot of older buildings here than on the North Campus?
WS: In this project, there is more capital improvement. There is more equipment that needs to be replaced. We’re building that into the project and so the dollar savings will be less, because we’re buying new equipment, we’re not just looking at the most energy-effective measures.
With the project on the North Campus in the mid-1990s, that project paid itself completely off a couple of months ago. Each year we were paying debt service out of savings, we also had a very strong positive cash flow that was going to the university and augmenting academics. With this project on the South Campus, there won’t be much of a positive cash flow. It will mostly be paying debt service, because we built in a lot of capital improvements.
BRM: The dandelion debate on campus got quite a bit of attention a few years back. How did you get away with confronting your boss so openly?
WS: The UB Green office staff and the environmental task force I chair at the university have had a long-standing concern about spraying toxic chemicals on the lawns. About 15 years ago, we were able to stop it on campus. It wasn’t controversial at the time and we just worked out a practice within facilities not to be spraying anymore. It saved a lot of money and campuses still looked good, so it was a non-issue.
Then, about five or six years ago, when Bill Greiner was still the president of UB, it became an issue again. He wanted facilities to start spraying the lawns again. The environmental task force was not supportive of that and we have traditionally been an independent voice, one of the environmental consciences on campus. We’ve had a couple of places and people who serve that function. So there was some resistance.
No one really felt comfortable resisting a request or order that was coming from the administration, but on the other hand, many of us felt that it was not the right thing to do and, secondly, since we had a reputation as a green campus, why should we tarnish it in any way?
Many of us feel that if you’re a green campus, you do energy conservation, you buy wind power, you recycle, you reduce waste and you don’t spray toxic chemicals on the lawns. It’s kind of one fabric.
There was enough of an outcry by students and others—of course, students have more leeway in complaining than employees do – that altogether, it discouraged President Greiner enough that he decided it wasn’t worth it.
More recently, there’s been a request from the current administration to resume spraying pesticides to kill dandelions, at least in certain portions of the campus. The environmental task force has not been supportive of that.
In fact, we have politely resisted it and suggested to the administration that we’re just the tip of the iceberg and that there would be a lot of people on campus and in the community that don’t want UB to take that step, so let’s not go there.
For two springs, we haven’t gone there, but I think there’s still an interest in taking that step.
Our view is that dandelions are just an example of biodiversity on campus – we don’t want there to be one species of plant on the lawns. More is better, if it’s colorful, that’s OK. We’d prefer to look at campus aesthetics in a different way, not golf course, park-like, but rather, are there places to introduce some wildness and make it more interesting? Frankly, we also don’t think there are many people have complained about this. We think most people like it just the way it is.
There was a Dandelion Festival and students at the time did some guerilla theater that was picked up by some local TV stations. There was a Bill Greiner character that was shown spraying poison material on student dandelions who died promptly on the floor of the student union.
And we all ate dandelion pizza while we watched it.

Written by Bill Zimmermann

Bill Zimmermann

Bill runs Seven Seas Sailing school, and is a staunch waterfront activist. He is also heavily involved with preserving, maintaining, and promoting the South Buffalo Lighthouse. When Bill first started writing for Buffalo Rising, he wrote an article a day for 365 days - each article coincided with a significant historic event that happened in Buffalo on that same day.

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