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Neil Holt / MEDILL

George Norek, architect of Argonne National Laboratory's sustainability program, uses beakers filled with dyed liquid to explain how much water new faucets will save the laboratory at their 2013 Earth Day event on Tuesday.

Argonne National Laboratory strives for sustainability during Earth Week

by Neil Holt
Apr 24, 2013

It feels like a regular Earth Week day in a small Illinois town. Festive events remind you to watch your energy usage, smiling children skip nearby after planting a tree and cyclists rush down the streets to get to work on time.

If it weren’t for the strict security, the fact that you had to flash three forms of ID before you could step foot on the healthy green grass of the campus, you might never know you were standing in the heart of one of the most advanced research facilities in the world.

“Argonne is basically like a small town. It has all the energy issues a small town would have,” Gregory Barrett, environmental engineer at Argonne National Laboratory, said.

That might be an understatement.

Energy consumption, reduction and coming energy solutions were the focus of Argonne National Laboratory’s “2013 Earth Day event” Tuesday.

The event saw scientists and engineers working to educate each other on efforts to increase the laboratory’s sustainability.

The event on the lab’s 1,500 acre campus near Lemont, presented a “town” facing more than typical energy challenges, but with minds and resources working to produce atypical solutions.

“We’re trying to solve problems not just with off-the-shelf solutions, but also novel solutions,” said Devin Hodge, Argonne’s sustainability program manager.

The problems stem from President Obama’s 2009 executive order mandating federal agencies to reduce their energy intensity (the energy used per square foot of office space), cut greenhouse gas emissions and decrease water consumption by 26 percent by 2020.

Meeting the requirements is no small task for Argonne. In remaining on the cutting-edge of research involving nuclear safety and high-powered batteries, the lab works to have cutting-edge facilities. Technology such as the lab’s new supercomputer is built from the ground up to be as energy efficient as possible said Raymond Bair, computational scientist at Argonne.

However, according to Barrett it still requires a huge amount of electricity to operate.

“The biggest challenge is as the electrical usage goes up, that’s going to be tough to defend

Hodge says Argonne is ready to meet and exceed the challenges. The lab already has a variety of technologies in place to help combat its energy and greenhouse gas production. Renewable energy sources including a 75 kilowatt solar array, larger than that of the international space station, and a wind turbine system are already in place.

Less exhilarating solutions are also on the way, such as new faucets that could save the lab 730,000 gallons of water per year, said George Norek, architect in Argonne’s sustainability program office.

Argonne is also trying to reduce the carbon footprint of employees. In 2010, Argonne introduced a bike-share program on campus, and a web-based program called “GreenRide Connect” that allows employees to estimate their vehicle’s green house gas emissions.

There was some evidence that the program might be having some effect. Employees talked about car-pooling to work, and the lab had a long line of employee’s electric vehicles on display outside the event.

Hodge said that even as advanced research facilities increase the energy tab of the laboratory, there are advantages to having leading-edge research and leading minds on campus. Citing the possibility that research into battery technology could lead to Argonne getting the opportunity use new energy efficient technologies before the rest of the world.

Together these resources should allow Argonne to meet its goal of a 30 percent reduction in energy intensity by the end of fiscal year 2015, Hodge said. And, while much of the event’s activities were focused on creating a sustainable world, Hodge said there are advantages within a different scope.

“If we achieve that 30 percent reduction, that’s dollars saved,” Hodge said, “Whether you agree with global climate disruption or you don’t.”