Urban Green in Wisconsin


Graphic Credit: Chambers Design, Photo Courtesy of Smart USA
Wisconsin is not the first place I think of as a hotbed for green innovation. It's better known for cheeseheads, the Green Bay Packers and political unrest. But the Badger State is surprisingly green and almost ultra green when it comes to small & large-scale wind power. Innovative waste management and a potential hatchery for progress green building design, the New North is making strived toward a sustainable future.
Photo Credit: Neil Chambers

I wasn't expecting much for my trip to University of Wisconsin - Oshkosh (UWO). My trips to neighboring states had left me feeling the Midwest had lost its way to a green tomorrow that would standout from more famous leading regions. Instead I found exhilarating optimism and application of green solutions everywhere I looked.

During my to drive north on US-41 from Milwaukee to Oshkosh, I discovered a magnificent large-scale wind power projects stretched across the landscape from Lake Winnobago south to Columbia County. The turbines follow the Niagara Escarpment, one of the few natural geological high points in the state. Two of the projects in the area, Blue Sky and Glacier Hill, began only a few years ago - but are estimated to have the potential to generate more than 250 megawats of power combined.


Video Credit: Neil Chambers

Pulling into the UWO campus, it didn't scream green pioneers. Yet I was soon to learn a tremendous amount of how the school is positioning itself to be one of the greenest universities in the nation. To start, they built a large aerobic digester to tap an underused renewable resource in the area; namely food waste. The digester sits only feet from office of Michael Lizotte, a former ecology/biology professor turned the sustainability director for UWO. He explained to me "the biodigester uses microbes to break down organic waste such as yard clippings and grocery store food product". The system can potentially generate as much as 10% of the university's electricity.


Photo Credit: Neil Chambers

For many schools, that is where they would stop - a single renewable energy technology, but at UWO they didn't. They have also installed more photovoltaic and solar thermal panels than any other university in Wisconsin. Atop of nearly every building sit substantial solar arrays.

Lizotte showed me how UWO is working to implement a thoughtful water management strategy with bioswales and rain gardens. Soon the university will have to deal with all on its stormwater onsite, so these more sustainable management techniques will be vital. The first few bioswales construction on campus weren't executed very well, so they have had ongoing problems. Those responsible for maintenance still have a mentality of lawn management so the bioswales aren't handled cared for appropriately either - only making problems worse. Lizotte has found a learning opportunity in this by orchestrating an annual Adopt a Bioswale Day were anyone interested can get firsthand experience with replanting and fixing the plots. Students love this kind of education of getting their hands dirty.


Photo Credit: Neil Chambers

Another green feature is Sage, the Business Department building. The building was completed in 2011 and is in the last stages of getting a LEED-Gold rating by the USGBC. The interior is divided in classrooms as well as study areas, club spaces and offices. Each of the study areas is drenched with natural light. Classrooms are equipped with energy saving devices such as daylight sensors. A courtyard in the middle of the building offers additional daylighting options for lecture halls and corridors.


Photo Credit: Neil Chambers

Sage boosts the region's first green roof. Campus folklore tells of how during a class a professor began criticizing "growing grass on the roof". The story goes that more than half the students quickly chimed into defend the sedum roof and explained the benefits such as water retention, extended roof life and energy efficiency.

During my trip, I spoke with several students. A student from the Dominican Republic expressed his desire to work with big issues and to develop policy to interconnect business interests with social issues. Another student from rural Wisconsin wants to take his knowledge of agriculture from growing up on a farm to work on sustainable food product in Africa and other developing countries.

An older student I met had enrolled at UWO after his company was destroyed during the 2008 economic collapse. As a testament of the human spirit, he had taken it all in stride, and is using his education to retool his career to move it into renewable energy areas such as solar thermal, photovoltaic and other technologies. He wouldn't have to go very far to get involved with this new frontier of energy creations. Innovative companies like Renewergy, a small scale wind turbine company, is based in Oshkosh.


Photo Credit: Neil Chambers

Renewergy was started to fill a need for turbines in the range of 20kw that can be easily installed in more urbanized areas. The company has partnered with another local business to develop a transportable generator that combines PV, wind, battery and standard diesel engine for potential military and disaster zones where grid-source energy isn't available.

Interesting things are happening off-campus as well. For example, Fox River has been transformed from an industrial armored waterway polluted to one of the riches fisheries in the state. The defunct City Center Mall, a 1970's styled concrete edifice that screams bad urban design, has been given new life by local and national businesses as office space and restaurants.

The only downside to my visit to UWO was that several building projects were described as "being designed to LEED Silver" but had not attempted certification. Having worked on many LEED projects, I know that "designed to LEED standards" doesn't usually hold much creditability. With the new LEED 3.0 and a much more rigorous submission requirements, I wasn't convinced they could have achieved Silver or even Certified levels if the design team wasn't held to specific requirements. I was a little disappointed by that because UWO has done so much to define sustainability with concrete examples. With the passion of the schools sustainability director and a student body looking toward the future, I have a feeling the campus will be a showcase example for the New North as well as around the nation for years to come.

More on Urban Green's Nationwide Book Tour
On the Road with Urban Green at Warren Wilson College
Urban Green: Architecture for the Future Hits the Road for National Book Tour
On the Road with Urban Green at Winthrop University
On the Road with Urban Green - One Week Out

Tags: Education

Best of TreeHugger 2014

WHAT'S HOT ON FACEBOOK