29 October 2002
GE lights up Biosphere 2 energy initiative
Tucson, Ariz. – An ambitious 10-year clean energy initiative by Columbia University's Biosphere 2 Center kicks off today with a symbolic re-lighting of the Biosphere 2 Laboratory.
Columbia University's Biosphere 2 Center near Tucson, Ariz.
Columbia University photo
"Petroleum was the power source of the 1900s. It is not the power source going forward," Christopher T. Bannon, one of Biosphere 2's key overseers declared to ISA 2002 attendees last week in describing this week's GE Lighting-sponsored event.
This evening's event will highlight the recent completion of a campus-wide lighting retrofit project. It's the first of many new energy programs planned in the coming years, with the ultimate goal of converting the 250-acre education and research center into a model energy campus for the 21st century, said Bannon, an ISA 2002 keynoter.
Bannon, the Biosphere 2 Center's chief of staff and vice president of operations and facilities, said the center soon would also be testing out solar-powered golf carts for transportation, along with "bi-fuel-" and compressed natural gas-powered vehicles.
To showcase the importance of energy-efficiency, a sixth-grade science class at Immaculate Heart Academy in Tucson will unveil results from a project they conducted with GE Lighting’s online energy auditor, GELA, that measures lighting energy use. Using GELA, and a computer, the students could log in every existing light bulb in their school or other buildings. The resulting audit provides an instant summary of how much energy they are currently using, how much energy they could save and recommends which energy efficient lighting should be used.
The plan to convert the center to new clean energy sources by 2012 was conceived in September 2001 by Biosphere 2 Center president Barry Osmond. At the time, Osmond noted that, although Biosphere 2’s research activities could soon lead to significant discoveries about the ever-changing planet Earth.
Earth Savers, an energy services company that conducts professional energy saving retrofits across the U.S., handled the lighting retrofit project – the first phase of the 10-year plan. The Bert W. Martin Foundation, an Orlando-based private foundation, provided the gift to immediately implement the project.
"The world is on the cusp of an energy revolution," said Bannon. "We’ve made a conscious decision to take a leadership position by creating the first American village powered by the new energies of the 21st century. We led with an energy conservation project, and we’ll follow by implementing new technologies that will change how we bring things to light in the new millennium," Bannon said.
Biosphere 2 is Columbia University’s 250-acre Arizona campus devoted to deepening understanding of earth systems vital to informed leadership of the planet. Its 3.1-acre, glass-enclosed, research laboratory allows systems-level research on the science of sustainability. Columbia uses it to conduct academic programs in earth systems for high school, undergraduate and graduate students as well as educational programs for 180,000 annual visitors and local school children.
When originally conceived in the early 1980's, Biosphere's original intent was to develop a self-sustaining habitat humans could use to live on other planets. Eight humans moved into it in 1991 for a two-year stay. However, technical problems – primarily oxygen depletion – caused it to be a scientific disaster. It's original $40 million budget shot up to $150 million.
Management coverups – notably tricks like backing in oxygen trucks under cover of darkness – caused it to become "the butt of jokes of late-night talk show hosts," Bannon told ISA 2002 show-goers. A search for new management ended up with Columbia's trustees unanimously backing it but radically changing the mission.
"They thought the most important issue was understanding now this planet works," not other planets, the researcher said. Columbia ended "the human experiment" and began focusing on four mesocosms in Biosphere 2 – a rain forest, a saltwater ocean, a desert, and an agro-forestry biome.
Experiments indicate, for example, carbon dioxide buildup on Earth could destroy this planet's rain forests in 50 years, if it continues unabated. Other experiments suggest Earth cannot support a population exceeding 10 billion people, he said. – Jim Strothman
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