Appalachian's Chief Sustainability Officer Dr. Lee Ball is joined by David Karlsgodt, Brailsford and Dunlavey’s director of management advisory services and host of the Campus Energy and Sustainability Podcast. Topics covered include the future of sustainability on college campuses; how the pandemic is impacting, and will continue to impact, sustainable practices in higher education; and jazz music.
Lee Ball: Yeah. So today we're with Dave Karlsgodt, and he is the director of energy advisory services for Brailsford & Dunlavey Inc. And you know, David, we've been trying to get you on this podcast for quite some time and, you know, welcome.
David K.: Well, thanks, Lee. It's really nice to be on the show.
Lee Ball: Yeah. This is my "Find Your Sustain Ability" podcast and you and I have talked a long time about getting you on my podcast since you had me on yours, I think, over two years ago. So, it's been a long time coming.
David K.: Yeah, it's kinda hard to believe it's been that long. But yeah, I had hoped to come out to see you this summer, but I don't think that's going to happen.
Lee Ball: No, that's not going to happen. We'll talk about the pandemic a little bit later. I definitely have, you know, I'm curious to get your feedback and little insight on what you've been thinking and what you've learned.
David K.: Well, I'm glad to be there virtually, if not physically.
Lee Ball: Yeah. So Dave, you're the director of energy advisory services with Brailsford & Dunlavey Inc. and, you know, you had a career with Fovea before that. And I like to start a lot of my podcasts by asking a little more personal stories of my guests, just to find out how you got on your path to helping in the sustainability space and climate action. So, if you don't mind, just tell us a little bit about your personal story, and how'd you get into this work, and why do you care so deeply about sustainability and climate action?
David K.: Absolutely. Well, I suppose like lots of people in sustainability, I have a nonlinear path to get here. I'd like to say it's unique in the sense of, you know, not having a traditional path, but I don't think a lot of people have a traditional path in sustainability. I actually grew up in Western Montana in a little town south of Missoula called Hamilton. You know, surrounded by mountains, ranches, wilderness, you know, it was a pretty idyllic childhood in many, many ways. So, I certainly gained an appreciation for the environment and just the natural world when growing up. But I really didn't appreciate it either because it was all I had ever known at that point. I went off to college at the University of North Texas to study jazz, which was an amazing school for music and ... but I did really miss Montana quite a bit and learned quickly that the urban sprawl of Dallas was not, sort of my native environment anymore. But I had a great time learning music. As I was wrapping up college, I spent some time working on cruise ships and kind of got to see the world. And also kind of got to see the world economy. We always called the cruise ships sort of the world economy in a tin can. And that gave me some perspective on, you know, just how the world works, both good and bad, and I got to see some amazing places. And I also saw some fairly nasty parts of humanity as well, you know, just kind of the waste and the sort of inequities in the world. So I suppose all of that kind of added up to maybe where I've landed today, but before I became a sustainability professional, I was working as a software developer, which I always joke was my ... the way I got out of poverty after being a musician for a while. And then through that work, I was introduced to, I think my first big project was with the King County Housing Authority, which gave me a chance to work with large public institutions and kind of learn that world a little bit. You know, spent a lot of time doing the more traditional marketing — sales, support, software, things like that. So, things that were technically interesting but not necessarily fulfilling. And as time went on, I was looking for something a little bit more interesting. I had a software business with about 14 people working for me and a business partner. And about 2010, my family took a kind of a hiatus and we took a trip to Costa Rica for three months when the kids were really small. And after I came back, a friend of mine introduced me to my business partners at the time or, you know, soon-to-be business partners. I didn't know that yet ... who were just starting to work with universities on climate action planning and utility master planning. They were having some good success, but they were struggling in the sense that they were having to reinvent things every time. So they were doing some fairly technical things with a lot of information, a lot of data. This is about the time that the term big data started becoming used in the lexicon. So they had high aspirations for being able to visualize all this information. And the premise was, if you could show people what was going on, then you could make big change. So, they were working with Michigan State, I think it was the first big client that we were working with. And I was brought in for my software development skills, really, to help automate some of the work that they were doing, which is really kind of how I got started. And from there, I just had to learn and learn and learn to try to keep up with all the engineering and the finance and the, you know, the politics of universities and all of that was fairly new to me at the time.
Lee Ball: Well, all right. So I've never met one sustainably professional that has the same story, which is always fascinating. I'm seriously thinking about scrapping all the rest of the questions and talking about jazz for the rest of the show. That would be fun. So, I am going to have to ask you a question about it. So, what was your instrument or instruments?
David K.: Well, I started as a saxophone player and, as a jazz musician, you also have to learn how to play flute, clarinet. Later I got into composition and arranging, so my degree ended up being in jazz arranging. So my final for my school was writing an entire concert of big-band music, which I just found the other day when we were in Montana, visiting my parents, which was kind of fun to listen to after all these years.
Lee Ball: Are you still playing some music? Have you picked it back up during the pandemic?
David K.: Yeah, I have been focusing more on piano, mostly because it's something I can get off a conference call, walk upstairs and play for five minutes, you know, grab some coffee, come back downstairs. I don't have to get a reed wet or, you know, form a band. I can just kind of play by myself for a few minutes. So it's more of a mental break for me now, where, you know, back in the day when I was focused on it 24/7, it was, you know, it got to be a job at some point, which is part of the reason I got out of it. But, I've been able to find the joy in it again, which is great.
Lee Ball: A lot of people have been, seems like, collecting hobbies during the pandemic. And I played percussion for years, but I've never had a drum kit. It's always been a dream. And, for my birthday, I was able to acquire a drum kit. And so, that's been keeping me busy the last, you know, since March 1st, this long pandemic we've been experiencing. So, but I'll gravitate towards jazz.
David K.: How's the family dealing with that drum kit?
Lee Ball: It was made very clear that it was highly encouraged from the very start. So, yeah, I, you know, I definitely find myself playing soft sometimes. And then, you know, with jazz is, you know, comfortable in that space playing soft, but you know, when I know there's no one around and I can close the windows from the neighbors, that's when I tend to, you know, rock it out a little bit. But yeah, you know, I think it's, you know, it's jazz that allows me to just kind of go with the flow and improvise and, you know, it's fun and it keeps me engaged and interested instead of just like playing like a rock beat by myself or something, you know, with nobody else.
David K.: Yeah. I do miss that interaction of being able to play with other folks.
Lee Ball: My son is a good songwriter and singer, and we've been able to collaborate some, so that's been great.
David K.: Excellent.
Lee Ball: So I have multiple questions after, you know, after that. I'm really curious about people's connection to sustainability, just because, we're in the business of trying to get people to care more, a lot of the times as sustainability educators. And so I've really soul searched as to how I ended up in this profession. And I'm always curious how others ended up in this profession, and it never ceases to amaze me how often someone like yourself grew up surrounded by nature, and you had this innate connection that really never went away. And so many other people, you know, unfortunately, they may grow up in a very urban environment that is devoid of the ability to have those connections and they just don't have them, and I feel very privileged in that regard. And then you've, you know ... also interested in how people maintain it over time. So you clearly have, you know, maintained that connection over time.
David K.: Yeah, no, it's taken me a while to really appreciate the gift that I had growing up where I did, you know, just the experiences I had as a young kid and the ability to go home to Montana for Christmas or summer vacation. We just got back from spending a couple of weeks out at my parents' cabin on Flathead Lake, which is one of the most beautiful places in the world in my opinion. So absolutely, I think that's true. One of the things that I've realized though, more recently in an interesting trend, I think not disconnected from some of the changes we're seeing around us, you know, since the George Floyd incident has been the nexus of that natural world connection, which I think, you know, is very much a lot of people are privileged to have that experience when you do, but there are a lot of parts of the world that just don't have that experience. And so seeing those two kind of threads coming together, that combination of social justice and the natural world, I think is super exciting. And it's something that I think for me, personally, has taken a while to really fully appreciate.
Lee Ball: Yeah. Yeah, I agree. I was actually talking about this yesterday with someone, you know, we have this deep need to have connections to people. We evolved with connections to nature and people, and so, it really needs to be combined. I think that we're missing something if we're just with people or we're just with nature, we need to bring it all together.
David K.: Yeah, absolutely. I've I think I really appreciated, like, so I went from Montana to Dallas and I really did not like the sprawl, I know, sort of the endless freeways and that aspect of the Dallas-Fort Worth area. And at the time I was there it was growing like crazy, like every little bit, there was a new strip mall or a new kind of ring of a freeway that was going in. But then I did spend kind of off and on through that period of time, a lot of time in New York City. And, you know, while that's even, of course, one of the most urban places in the world, I really appreciated that for the community aspect of it too. And I think, for me, I, you know, in the back of my mind, I had this kind of appreciation for the beauty of the urban and the beauty of the rural, where I grew up. And it was kind of bouncing back and forth between the two of those things, which is part of the reason I ended up in Seattle, which I think has kind of the balance of those two things much more than most cities do.
Lee Ball: I hope the future of cities, you know, pay more attention to biophilic design and biomimicry, can really weave those together. Because I think that humanity would greatly benefit from that. So Dave, you have a podcast as well. You've been doing it for quite some time. Can you tell us a little bit about your show?
David K.: Yeah, absolutely. It's called the Campus Energy and Sustainability Podcast, and I think I started the first episode in 2017, so we're starting our 3rd full year. Originally, it was Rob and I, my business partner at the time, were looking for something just to, you know, it was really just marketing that we were trying to find a way to get the word out there about the work we were doing. You'd read all these business books and they'd say, oh, hey, you know, write articles or, you know, send email newsletters. And all of that felt a little bit empty to me. So that basic premise of the podcast was, "Hey, I was not a trained professional. I didn't, you know, I hadn't gone to engineering school and I hadn't gone to, you know, study science or what you would think more of a traditional background for what I was doing. So the podcast became a way of me really just kind of learning as I went and being able to interview folks to really dig into a particular topic. The show's essentially a long-form interview format. We'll pick a topic. It's a pretty wide-ranging group. I mean, it just has to have something to do with campuses and something to do with energy or sustainability and not necessarily all three at the same time. So through that lens, I've been able to interview folks as focused on things as like a small project in Iowa, looking at landfill gas, or I talked with a retired Marine colonel who had worked at the national level on a strategic plan for the country, not a sustainability plan, but like a strategic plan. So kind of everything in between. Most recently, we did an episode series called "Changing the Climate for Women." So I had two interns that worked for me last summer, two women that were young journalists, and they were able to interview four different sustainability professionals and kind of get their stories. So, it's ranging from engineering topics to, you know, social justice topics to, you know, strategic design or even, you know, finance or anything in between. So it's been a lot of fun for me because I get to just kind of follow what's interesting to me, where I see the trends going, try to align it to my work as best I can, but sometimes it pushes me into new directions I would never have expected.
Lee Ball: Yeah. Great. Yeah, they're are a lot of fun. I feel like I'm just kind of barely getting started and you know, people like you that came before me have learned a lot, your professional approach I really appreciate. Dave, what was the first college or university you worked with? You mentioned Michigan State. But there might be others. I'm interested in what you've learned from those early experiences and how those lessons might be relevant now.
David K.: Yeah, absolutely. When I first was introduced to Rob McKenna, my business partner and Mike Walters, who was the other one that had started up the company that I joined at the time. They were working with Michigan State and they had been working through like a long-range planning exercise for them. So it was kind of a combination of a climate action plan and a utility master plan. So I got brought in on one of the larger universities in the country. So fairly complex technical system, definitely a complex political dynamic, just the number of people, the number of apartments, the scale, I mean just the size of it; it's basically its own little city in East Lansing. So I, you know, the good part about that was I got to really dig in and spend probably, you know, the better part of a year, just thinking about one really complex system and learning it inside and out. The downside of that is because their system is so unique to them, a lot of my assumptions about how things worked and how universities operated was colored by the way that Michigan State ran, which is, you know, there was a lot of similarities when we went to other places, but it wasn't necessarily the same approach. But that said, you know, it was a real gift. We were working through the CFO's office, which was great because when we asked for things, you know, everybody said yes, because everything ran through through his office. He was the one that, that essentially controlled the operations on campus. So we got to do some great things, including helping getting them off of coal. You know, we did a lot of the early planning that led to that step. They were looking at renewable energy back when, you know, way before the prices had come down to what we know today. So they had gotten into anaerobic digesters and they were looking at wind and solar. And so I got to spend a lot of time just thinking through how do you make the case for those different technologies? How do you, how do you think about layering in new ways of doing business within a complex organization? We did lots of work on energy efficiency. They were even putting in a particle accelerator at the time. So, you know, kind of a huge energy load to run electrons through a giant refrigerator to do cutting-edge science. So we had, you know, major reliability issues. So it was like everything you could ask for as a model or cutting your teeth on something interesting.
Lee Ball: They've since installed quite a bit of solar on campus, photovoltaics.
David K.: Yeah. They, I think at the time it was one of the largest on-site installations of a solar carport system. And I think that ASU (Arizona State University) may have beaten them now on some on-site solar, but, you know, that's great. That's exactly what we want to see. You know, from when we started, it was a matter of could they afford to get off coal and, you know, talking to them now it's night and day. I mean, it's amazing. There's the old expression change happens slowly and then all at once. And I remember that there was a point at which there was a meeting that I can remember being in where you could tell that the entire leadership team just realized, "Oh, we've got to make these big changes." And they saw a way to make it happen. And the next thing you know, they have a completely different system than they did before.
Lee Ball: So you mentioned, how schools are uniquely different with operations and politics. And, you know, you just also mentioned ASU, which is not to be confused with App State.
David K.: I guess I should be careful with my acronyms here!
Lee Ball: We're officially App State here, Appalachian State, but you know, you and I have talked a lot about climate action here at App State. What do you think our biggest challenge is?
David K.: You know, I think for most universities at this point, especially those that are not in the, you know, very warm parts of the Sunbelt, it's thermal energy. And even in the Sunbelt, I think that's true to some extent. We've got at least a solution set now that's viable for electricity. I mean, there are a variety of ways you can clean up your electricity. What we haven't really solved, at least, well, we've solved it, but a lot of places haven't implemented ways of dealing with their thermal energy. So we're right now, most campuses, they burn things to make steam and then they use electricity to cool off things at the same time. So you're wasting energy twice. And the real change I see is campuses that are moving more from a steam system to a hot water-based system, which both greatly improves your efficiency, but it also allows you to use a bunch of different technologies that are not possible when you're trying to heat things up to the level of steam. I think we're just at the very beginnings of that. There are a handful of campuses that have made that switch. I think, you know, Stanford was sort of the classic that people have been talking about now for years, but was always kind of poo-pooed as this big, giant expensive thing that only Stanford could afford to do. But, you're seeing campuses like Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. I mean, I would not say that's a state that's known for its liberal overspending on systems or whatever. I mean, this is a very much a place that they're making a business case to do something for a variety of reasons. But I think it's the thermal energy is the simple answer.
Lee Ball: Right. When I sent you the questions I almost put in parentheses, hint, hint, our steam plant. And I actually deleted it because I was like, I want to see if he keys in on that. And obviously you did because of your vast experience in our conversations, but you're right. We're a mountain campus. And regardless of being in the mountains, you know, even in Charlotte, it's a big challenge for the other universities within the state. You know, as I think about solutions for climate action, I can imagine, you know, a solution for purchasing electricity, for transportation. Although there are challenges, it's more difficult to imagine how to decarbonize our steam infrastructure. We currently burn natural gas, but we're, you know, we're looking at, we recently did a small study to look into opportunities and yeah, we'll see if electric boilers are an option someday and we can switch everything to electric and continue to decarbonize our electric portfolio. That would be great.
David K.: Yeah. And you know, and it's not really electric boilers that are the answer, and I think that's a little bit of a misnomer. What dropping the temperature allows you to do is trade heat. I think that's the one that people forget about if you're cooling buildings and heating buildings simultaneously, moving heat from one place to another is way more efficient than it is making it twice. That can handle, say 20%, 30% of your load in a climate like Boone, which is, you know ... why are we wasting? We're, you know, we're wasting that much energy itself. Systems that you're using today are even more than that. The other options are, you know, you have ground source heating, which really uses electricity to move heat from the ground. So same idea. But then you also can do things like thermal storage. So that allows you to have a, you know, time shift things. So you can use electricity when it's cheaper at certain times of the day to either cool or heat, which you can't do in a steam system because you need things at a certain temperature. But I think the more interesting piece of that is just how much more efficient your buildings work, how much better the buildings feel. Like I know in my own house I've put in a heat pump recently and just the consistency of the heat ... just it's a better, it feels better. You don't, like, before I would wake up and I'd have an oil furnace that would blast heat in the morning and then it would shut off and then it would get cold and it turns on and it blasts. And it's just a better way, a better operating system to work from.
Lee Ball: Yeah. I go electric boilers in my mind because I think of all the infrastructure that might have to change, that would be just like an easy switch, but you know, nothing is easy in this world. Yeah. Have you ever walked, I'm sure you've walked into, you've been in buildings that have true thermal heating, like in-floor heating or, you know, in a wall somewhere, some sort of a radiator. And it's always so comfortable. It's such an even way to heat a building.
David K.: Yeah, and I think that this idea of there being a simple switch, like the electric boiler that we're going to find in our ... I know biofuels has been kind of touted as that like, "Oh, we just need to switch out whatever our traditional system is, switch out the heating or the fuel source and we'll have kind of the silver bullet solution." And I think, if anything I've learned after 10 years or so of working in this space is that nothing is easy. And usually what it is is it's, you've got to pile up like 15 different reasons to do the right thing. And typically the reason that you started with is not the reason that will make the decision. You know, lowering carbon emissions for Michigan State was certainly one of their goals. And it was certainly something that our leadership team was thinking about. But ultimately the reason they made the decision was because it was less risky. It was, you know, they had operators and, you know, and like people retiring and just like systematic change that was happening all around them, that it was just a better decision for where they were at the time. Where carbon emissions, for example, where it's just a piece of it. So I think this idea of getting off of steam, it opens Pandora's box of all these different questions that you need to answer. Usually it gets into like how are you maintaining your buildings? How are you dealing with your deferred maintenance? When you're building new spaces, are you thinking about how they'll talk to the other buildings? Are you building a network of buildings that are adding to the ability for your system to get better over time, or are you just adding more sprawl — the Dallas-Fort Worth area in the '90s kind of concept? And we need to be thinking systematically. And so I think that's, again, one thing I've really learned working through all these different college campuses.
Lee Ball: So you really identified that space we work in and try to identify this mutual opportunities. You know, mutualism is sustainability professionals, you know, I think ace in their back pocket so that, you know, we can, you know, "Oh yeah, there's a business case too." And it probably could be even stronger than some other case we're trying to make.
David K.: Absolutely. I mean, if one thing I think we've really been having to hone as a skill set for our team right now is because we're promoting these ideas that require pretty significant amounts of capital to switch out systems, you have to be able to make a business case that aligns it with the institutional mission. If you don't do that, nobody cares. I mean, people just won't even, they'll just laugh at you or just kind of roll their eyes or they may say, "OK, well, I really think climate change is important, so we better do this, but we can't afford it right now. We can afford it maybe in 10 years." And so they'll put a plan in place, kick the can down the road and leave it for the next person to kick the can down the road. And I think what I'm learning now is we need to frame these problems as solutions to a whole bunch of things that can't just be to do less bad. They have to be, to build a better future that people want to be a part of.
Lee Ball: Yeah. Just a more generous future ... I liked your analogy. I was thinking we need to pick up the can and turn it into something and recycle it.
David K.: There you go. Exactly. Yeah, instead of just keep kicking it because we've been kicking the can for a long time now. It's been, our whole society is based on this idea of kind of extracting and building out and sprawling out and extracting more and more. And we just have hit the limit. We can't do that anymore.
Lee Ball: So we're clearly at a very crucial time right now, you know, with a very short amount of time to get the climate crisis steered in a different direction. But now we found ourselves in the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, so we have this collection of crises. And so let's talk about the pandemic a little bit. Do you see this as an opportunity for climate action and higher ed and how is it also affecting your work at the moment?
David K.: Yeah, as you would expect it's mixed. I think one thing I've realized is it's at a different timescale than climate change. You know, the pandemic, as long as we've all been in our houses, it feels like it's going on forever. In the grand scheme of things, it's a relatively short blip on the historical map. So I think that's one element that's different, but I think what it did, at least what I'm observing, is it woke people up to all sorts of things that we had been ignoring, in some cases for centuries. Some of the social justice action that you've seen, I think came out of that because people had a chance to sort of sit and ponder and think and get out of the business of their day-to-day life. So I think that aspect of it has kind of opened up opportunity, whether or not we seize it, I think is to be determined. I think the thing that I am most concerned about for higher ed is I think there will be a lot of institutions that don't survive it. They were not set up to deal with not having revenue for a year or even having a drop of 20% of revenue for a year, let alone shutting down all together. So I think you're going to see a lot of smaller colleges and universities that weren't really set up for the long haul really struggle, but maybe that's OK. I mean, I think the idea that we have an educational system that was based on going home in the summer to work on the farm, which there are people that do that and I grew up in a community where people did actually do that, but I think in the majority of the U.S., at least, that's not really how we operate any more. So, why are we still using this business model that predates the country, really, now? I think the pandemic in a lot of ways is bringing some of those trends that were already underway. I mean, colleges and universities were already trying to reinvent their business models. This is just forcing it to happen much faster than I think it would have otherwise.
Lee Ball: Yeah, I've really appreciated the reconciliation that seems to be happening since George Floyd was murdered on the streets in front of the world, essentially. And we have an opportunity now to not only reconcile, but to bring a more diverse perspective into our work. Because I mean, as you know, the sustainability movement has largely been white and not a lot of people of color, and we need everyone's perspectives that we can get because there are brilliant people out in the world. And I feel like we have such a small amount of time and if we can just get more people interested in sustainability, I think it will help. I think a lot of people are realizing that sustainability has been intertwined with social justice from the beginning. Obviously, social justice movements came first, but ever since the '80s, when the sustainability movement emerged, social justice has always been a very strong part of it. I think now, though, more people are realizing that.
David K.: Yeah, it's hard to ignore. It's also just completely shattered preconceived notions about what's possible. Right? I mean, just the speed at which everyone's had to adjust to a new reality. I mean, who would have thought, you know, that we would have clean air in certain places just like overnight? I mean, that's always been this idea of, well, it's not possible because we need industry. We need these things. So yeah, people are suffering, but you know, we have to have it because progress requires it. And I think the pandemic has shown us, in a very short order, "Hey, there can be a different world." And I think that's pretty early days. I think the idea that we're going to go back and bounce back to the way things were, I don't believe that at all. I think this is our, the equivalent of, you know, I think of my grandmother went through the depression and World War II and sort of how those events in her life completely shaped the way she saw the world and approached things. That, I think, will be for our collective generations. You know, with all those that live through this, we won't see the world the same way that we used to. That's not a bad thing. We were not really on a good path. We had not achieved a space where the world was working for the majority of humans. I mean, certainly some people were doing just fine, but you know, that said, I mean, I guess I'm, I'm excited for what comes next. I think we'll probably still have lots of things to grapple with and problems to deal with. And I think that's always true, but I think we'll have an opportunity to sort of rethink the way that we want to build things.
Lee Ball: I agree. I'm very hopeful. I am an optimist, I will admit, but I see a lot of other people that are hopeful as well. This is an opportunity to seize upon, you know, especially with our campus infrastructure. Currently, obviously, few of us are on campus in these buildings, but when we do return, I think that the way we return is going to be smarter. We're going to use the spaces more efficiently. We're not going to keep buildings on just for one event. We may see that teleworking sticks as well. And we just may not need to have as much infrastructure and we can hopefully focus some of our resources to support faculty and student learning.
David K.: I think, we've been talking a lot about the concept of asset utilization, which is maybe not the most exciting term, but the idea that we have built these spaces that really only get used maybe nine months out of the year. And even at that, they're not fully utilized throughout their time, maybe four days a week. So that's a lot of material, a lot of energy, a lot of stuff that we have in place just for this experience. On the other hand, I think you're seeing people really miss that in person experience and, you know, campuses in particular are these magical places where people come together and it can form a community, at least for a portion of their life. I think that's invaluable. I think back to my own experience as a musician at the University of North Texas and the people I met and the experiences I had, and I could not have done that remotely. You know what I mean? So there is something there. It's not like I think everybody's just going to telecommute and we're all gonna Zoom call our way into the future and live in our own little compounds. But at the same time, I think you're right in that we don't necessarily need to get on an airplane every time we need to talk to somebody. We don't necessarily need everybody to have all that square footage just to use some portion of the year. I think you're going to see people have to be a lot smarter about it, initially, for just resource constraint perspective. But I think once we've seen what's possible, you know, we can rethink how we want to structure things.
Lee Ball: I agree. And App State is a special place surrounded by mountains and it, you know, people come here for a reason. So, I am confident that people will keep coming here for many decades come.
David K.: Yeah, absolutely. And that's what's fun about working with campuses, right? Is that universities in general ... it's they can talk about what do they look like in a hundred years because they probably will be around in hundred years and most of them that were around a hundred years ago. Unlike, you know, working for for-profit companies, they have a bad quarter or they may not be around or they may get absorbed by somebody else. So it definitely gives you a long-term type of thinking at least I find really fascinating to live within.
Lee Ball: If only we were able to build and design with 100 years in mind.
David K.: Exactly. Well, I think, you know, you're starting to see the financial industry realize this too. I mean, you're starting to see people looking for ways to invest money into college campuses over 50 year timeframes. You know, this is, they see that, right? That's a good investment. You want people that are building things for the long haul. Like we're hitting that limit, in all of our systems where the short-termism just doesn't get you anywhere. So, you know, that's another aspect of working with colleges that I've had to really come to appreciate, it's just that long scale. It can be really, really frustrating because they're very, very slow to make decisions, colleges. They pride themselves on being these beds of innovation and thinking, and within their walls, they are, like there's a lot of smart people thinking of a lot of great ideas, but they don't apply it necessarily to themselves. You know, we were talking about steam systems, the industrial revolution was built on steam. And we're still using that technology as our core. That is not innovative, right? That is very much a legacy technology. But again, you know, some of the newer ways of thinking, came out of universities too. So they have this kind of dichotomy of thinking that can be kind of frustrating to work in at times because you see the answer, you see a step forward, but there's a lot of risk aversion to try to keep that institution around for the next hundred years, which is also justified. Right? So it's, you can't fault those in leadership for having that perspective.
Lee Ball: You've mentioned some innovative technologies and kind of district heating with hot water and smarter buildings and kind of systems thinking related to the design of multiple buildings. What are some other innovative technologies that you're following at the moment?
David K.: Yeah. Well, I guess one that I'm, one that I think may be coming down the road, which probably is not so much on college campuses, but maybe in the macro economy would be the use of hydrogen. I think that's actually coming around this time. I think, you know, back in the George Bush administration that was an idea that was very much a, well in 10 years we'll have hydrogen, but it's always 10 years away. I'm feeling a little bit more confident that that's actually coming now, given that we're starting to solve some of the easier problems as I mentioned before, and we have ways of getting electricity produced cheaply, renewably. I mean, most parts of the country, new solar and wind are way cheaper than any other source. Even just to run a coal plant, it's cheaper to build new wind than to run a coal plant right now. So I think those types of technologies that can concentrate energy based off renewable energy, that's probably where things are going. Some of the other things that I'm seeing are just business model innovation, which does not sound that exciting. Like we have the technology today to solve these problems. It's not like we need a new flux capacitor to be invented. We just need to figure out ways to buy the things we already have. And unfortunately, since most of the technologies that are lower carbon, higher reliability, you know, have this, this kind of long-term thinking embedded into them, they're capital intensive. Usually they're like wind and solar, you pay for them upfront and then you get energy for free forever, more or less. I mean, there's some operational costs and things like that, but you need financial innovation to sort of help with that. I'm seeing campuses get smarter about it. You know, just internally, they don't necessarily need to bring in a third party to deal with that. They just need to change their own financial structures. But that's, that's again, that's slow. That's not the kind of thing that universities do quickly. But you're starting to see a lot of other industry come in and look at ways of bringing capital to these problems because they want to invest. These are good deals that they want to find. They can't find them anywhere else because, you know, oil used to be where you put your money. But that's not a good investment right now. So, you know, so figuring out how to channel all that capital, the money that wants to find a stable home and figure out a way to invest it into campuses. So it's not so much the technology aspect of it. It's not like you need this magic invention. You really just need different structures, ways of doing business, different ways of monitoring what you're already doing, different ways of charging for what you're doing. You know, so energy is not just considered to be free out of sight out of mind, but that there's, you know, there's an association with both its utility, like it's important. Do you need it to do what you need to do? But also that it has a cost and that somebody needs to pay for it and you need to keep reinvesting in it.
Lee Ball: Yeah. I'm glad you brought that up because, you know, up until now, we've been chipping away at climate action, you know, carbon reductions on campuses by installing a small, renewable energy system there and doing a small energy efficiency project here, but bringing in a different financial model mechanism to fund deep impacts seems to be where we're seeing campuses actually make some achievable strides. Until recently, most schools that have pretty much reached their climate action goals or even reached neutrality have been very small. Right? And so we're starting to see like Arizona State and a few others that are trying to solve their problems really through very creative financial mechanisms.
David K.: Yeah. It's kind of silly though, isn't it? It's like we can find money for a new building that has a donor associated with it to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars in some cases, but to make those scales of investment for the entire system to get better, it's just kind of unthinkable for some reason. I guess I understand why. I mean, if, if you're a donor, you don't want to put your name plate on the steam system or I guess the new hot water system that's replacing the steam system. I mean, it's just not sexy. It's out of sight out of mind, as I mentioned. But as organizations get more complex, and especially these higher ed institutions are going to be around for the next hundred years, it just baffles me on why it's so difficult to think that way. But again, I think the reason is that I've had to come to, is it has to align with the mission. And that's the challenge of our industry is to come with how does this connect to making students' education better? How does this help the research of the institution for the long haul? I mean, if you don't frame it in those terms, the people that are in charge of making the financial procurement decisions, they just don't care and they shouldn't because that's not what they're there to do. It's been one of those cases where I started being frustrated, but I'm coming around to realizing, wow, I guess the problem is one that I am here to solve. I'm here to help try to figure that out and try to help tell that story. And so, you know, I think the story that I'm landing on is we have the technology today. We don't need new inventions. We just need to get more creative about how we do the accounting for it, how we think about the long-term investment, how we build a system that's reinvesting over time and how we build a system that gets better the more you invest in it. Now we have a system where we build a new building and it makes the system more fragile, harder to use because now you're putting more load on it and there's more risk of something breaking. What if we can build a system that gets better the more you add to it and the more you connect it together? And so I'm very excited about that. And again, back to your original question, if I remember where we started this kind of thread, was the COVID. It has kind of broken the spell of what's possible. So I think people are more open to those kind of big systematic changes than they were before.
Lee Ball: I agree. And you know, the academic in me wants to bring the College of Business into these conversations and let their students and their faculty have an understanding of how we were able to create these models and have our building scientists on campus, and be able to study, you know, the deep efficiency that we're investing in and truly develop a campus as a laboratory like many of us dream to do.
David K.: Absolutely. It's a matter of building a place that's worthy of that kind of learning, right? I mean, you don't want your students coming to a campus where they're being told, this is what we need for the future, but that what they see around them are buildings that are being underinvested, that are falling apart, that don't really work very well all the time. Or they're not healthy. They're not breathing clean air. You don't feel safe sending your children back to the college because you're not sure whether or not they're going to catch a virus because of the way that the air handling systems are set up. I mean, we have an opportunity now to sort of rethink what it means to have a world-class institution. It probably means there'll be less of them. I mean, it probably means that we're going to have to grow and redevelop what's already there rather than just, you know, sprawl it out and keep expanding. You know, I think the days of just endless footprint increase of the campus is probably coming to an end at most places. But I guess we'll see.
Lee Ball: Yeah. Most of us have a finite amount of area to develop on anyway. So ...
David K.: I guess that's true.
Lee Ball: A lot of times we redevelop or we retrofit or tear down and build better. So, Dave, I really appreciate your time. This has been great. You left me a lot to stew on, and I have a lot of people I want to share our podcast with here, internally. It's just always a pleasure to talk to you. And I really look forward to where we could shake hands and hang out in the pub after the conference again.
David K.: Oh, I look forward to it, Lee. Maybe bring the drum sticks and the travel set and we'll have a little jam session.
Lee Ball: That sounds perfect. Yeah. I'd like to reconvene in Montana sometime.
David K.: Oh yeah, anytime. It's a gorgeous place if you've never visited. I, you know, I think I mentioned to you last time, North Carolina, South Carolina, Delaware and Alabama are the only states I have yet to visit. So I definitely need to come visit you guys out in Boone sooner than later.
Lee Ball: Well, we're hoping for the 2021 Appalachian Energy Summit right here in Boone.
Lee Ball: A shameless plug well placed! Well done.
Lee Ball: Thank you, Dave. We really appreciate it.
David K.: Thanks, Lee. It was a pleasure.
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About Sustainability at Appalachian
Appalachian State University’s leadership in sustainability is known nationally. The university’s holistic, three-branched approach considers sustainability economically, environmentally and equitably in relationship to the planet’s co-inhabitants. The university is an active steward of the state’s interconnected financial, cultural and natural resources and challenges students and others think critically and creatively about sustainability and what it means from the smallest individual action to the most broad-based applications. The university offers both undergraduate and graduate academic degree programs that focus on sustainability. In addition, 100 percent of Appalachian’s academic departments offer at least one sustainability course or course that includes sustainability, and all students graduate from programs that have adopted at least one sustainability learning outcome. Learn more at https://appstate.edu/sustainability.
About Appalachian State University
As the premier public undergraduate institution in the state of North Carolina, Appalachian State University prepares students to lead purposeful lives as global citizens who understand and engage their responsibilities in creating a sustainable future for all. The Appalachian Experience promotes a spirit of inclusion that brings people together in inspiring ways to acquire and create knowledge, to grow holistically, to act with passion and determination, and to embrace diversity and difference. Located in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Appalachian is one of 17 campuses in the University of North Carolina System. Appalachian enrolls more than 20,000 students, has a low student-to-faculty ratio and offers more than 150 undergraduate and graduate majors.