We Conserve director inspires environmental spirit

Key is to commit to something simple, such as turning off lights

Oct. 1, 2009

by Kiera Wiatrak

In 2006, when Faramarz Vakili proposed the goal of reducing UW–Madison’s energy consumption by 20 percent by 2010, he was met with doubt.

[photo] Faramarz Vakili.

A driving force behind the We Conserve program, Faramarz Vakili is pictured in one of the program’s energy-efficient utility trucks. Vakili says, “This is one of the 19 battery-powered Neighborhood Electric Vehicles we are using as part of our fleet. These vehicles are 100 percent battery-operated and get charged at night by plugging them in.” Vakili is associate director of Physical Plant and program director for the We Conserve initiative.

Photo: Jeff Miller


New column: Be the We

“Frankly, nobody thought this was going to happen,” says Vakili, associate director of the Physical Plant and campus director of the We Conserve initiative.

Vakili estimates the campus is already three-quarters of the way there. Under his leadership, the campaign promotes environmental stewardship and education and launches projects to reduce the university’s environmental footprint.

Since its debut, We Conserve has promoted energy conservation and efficiency, recycling, clean-power generation, smart transportation, water conservation and eco-friendly choices.

In the last three years, the annual energy savings identified by We Conserve exceeds the combined energy use of UW–Parkside, UW–Superior and UW–Green Bay combined, he says.

Between April 2006 and July 2009, the university implemented projects to reduce its annual energy costs by $7 million, its annual water use by 178 million gallons, its annual use of diesel fuel by 10,000 gallons and its annual landfill deposits by 9 percent.

We Conserve’s most notable contributions have been inside energy-hungry buildings. Heating, cooling and ventilation account for more than 70 percent of the university’s energy use. We Conserve designs projects to reduce energy consumption while meeting buildings’ needs and performance requirements.

Initiatives in more than eight targeted campus buildings, including the Kohl Center, Chamberlin Hall, the Chemistry Building and Engineering Hall. Work there has reduced campus carbon dioxide emissions by more than 53,000 tons.

“Goal No. 1 is to instill the spirit of environmental stewardship in the conscience of the community,” he says.

This fall, the university debuted the three-credit course “Why We Conserve” to bring We Conserve’s values straight to the classroom. We Conserve also holds outreach events such as recycled clothing fashion shows, concerts and cookouts.

The university’s spirit inspired Vakili and the rest of the We Conserve staff to design the new campaign, “Be the We,” set to launch in a few weeks.

“If the various players inside the university and outside are all saying, ‘Be the We,’ they are not only advertising for their own activities, but they’re also promoting We Conserve as a philosophy of operation,” Vakili says.

We Conserve will draw on several established campus collaborations to put the campaign in motion. Among others, Vakili and We Conserve work with admissions, housing, athletics and the Center for the First-Year Experience and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. It also collaborates with student groups, including REthink Wisconsin, WISPIRG and the Green Coalition.

Vakili hopes it’s not just the students who get the message. But he stressed that everyone who takes steps to reduce waste and protect the environment has different reasons for doing it.

“Some people are motivated by money, some people by the love for environment, polar bears, social justice, national security,” Vakili says. “And your reason is the right reason to do it.”

Vakili began conserving because it was what his job called for when rising uni versity energy bills and the campus’s carbon footprint caught the attention of then-Chancellor John Wiley. In 2006, Wiley directed the Division of Facilities, Planning and Management to take more aggressive efficiency measures.

“As I start prescribing these things, I noticed that these things I’m talking about are really good and smart things that I, too, should be doing,” Vakili says.

The key, he says, is for everyone to find a few things they can commit to, such as turning off lights when they leave a room, using refillable drink containers or putting their computers on sleep mode when they’re not using them.

“It’s not austerity, it’s not being cold, it’s not being uncomfortable, it’s not walking versus having a car. It’s basically turning the light off when you are not in that room,” he says.