Joseph Signore

Joseph Signore has plenty of free time these days to do what he does best: innovate.

He has used his newfound spare time to perfect the solar-powered sprinkler clocks he has long been constructing. Signore, Yale’s supervisor for landscaping and maintenance services, could never get the battery management system to work quite right until the COVID-19 pandemic allowed the hours for his creativity to blossom.

“I’m a bit of a tinkerer,” Signore explained earnestly. “I just have this passion for all things sustainable and green.”

He hopes to soon install the modified clocks on Yale’s campus, removing 250 irrigation clocks from the power grid. In the time of social distancing, Signore only works on campus a few days a week. He has devoted his down time to sustainability efforts, trying to salvage something from the coronavirus’s wreckage.

“I don’t want to say COVID was a good thing by any means, not at all,” Signore said. “But I think some good will come from this tragedy.” He has tried to see the effects of the pandemic as an opportunity, a sort of reckoning for environmental efforts.

Environmental activists are calling for the University to do the same. The pandemic has disrupted the University’s normal functioning, sending students home for remote learning and shuttering museums and athletic arenas. In the turmoil, some sustainability efforts have stalled as Yale officials turn their attention to mitigating the pandemic’s immediate effects. But with the number of changes the coronavirus has brought, activists say now is the time for renewed environmental commitments.

“How do we use this opportunity to change the way we do things?” Katrina White ’20, a student environmentalist, questioned. “When we finally get out of this mess, how do we rebuild in a way that’s even more sustainable?” 

Katie Schlick ’21, Silliman’s sustainability liaison, said that COVID-19 has exposed a society-wide lack of preparedness in responding to crises, and that the University should do its part to stave off the looming climate emergency.

“We’re not really sure at this point if and when this is all over, if people are just going to want to revert back to some semblance of normal,” Schlick said. “I hope that people realize that global crises like a global pandemic are real and climate change is real and this is something that could happen again in our very foreseeable future.”

The consumption and reduction of Yale’s energy use 

Some sustainability efforts have gained ground during the pandemic. The Carbon Charge Working Group, an association of six students spanning Yale College and the School of Management, has pared down its current projects but devoted more time to the few it has continued — a grant application to perform energy surveys on Yale’s buildings and a survey of building managers. The group is trying to determine how to reduce Yale’s energy use during ordinary times and is analyzing building managers’ perception of the carbon charge.

Launched in 2017, the carbon charge tests the efficacy of internal carbon pricing at Yale — providing an economic incentive to reduce carbon emissions. Though the working group’s analysis is not yet public, White — the group’s leader — said they have found that charging a price on carbon is effective at reducing emissions, but that there is friction associated with it. The charge’s next steps are to determine how to make sure the people using energy within the buildings feel an incentive to reduce their energy use, in addition to the building managers who receive the charge reports.

Buildings are the University’s chief energy cost, and many are energy-inefficient. The University has retrofitted some of its buildings with double windows to decrease heat loss. “They’ve worked hard at that, but it is a bunch of old buildings,” Ronald Smith, a professor of geology and geophysics, said. Yale’s historic facades shield poorly insulated masonry walls, which can only be altered from the inside. But the renovation is costly and time-consuming.

Without students on campus, the University has reduced its energy consumption in some areas. Central campus energy use has declined by 30 percent compared to a typical spring term, Director of the Office of Sustainability Virginia Chapman told the News. And, while all the buildings still receive power, heating and cooling, in late March Yale Facilities began setting back 79 of its unoccupied buildings to their winter recess temperatures.

But Chapman added that the reduction is not universal across campus, and some buildings have received new roles — and therefore increased energy needs — as part of the University’s response to the virus. The residential colleges housing first responders and other essential workers use more energy than usual, and the Lanman Center, newly fashioned into a field hospital, has consequently received increased airflow.

Yale’s laboratories, far and away the most energy-consuming buildings on campus, have continued operating throughout the pandemic. Though Yale suspended all nonessential lab research in late March in a bid to protect researchers from exposure to the virus, the labs have not curtailed their energy usage. Many of the labs are still being used for critical maintenance activities, and some for active COVID-19 research, Chapman told the News.

Laboratories are some of the largest energy guzzlers on Yale’s campus. The University’s 14 wet laboratories, which experiment with potentially hazardous chemicals, have used 264,447 million British thermal units in the 2020 fiscal year to date, according to Yale’s facilities energy tracker.

Brad Gentry, an environmental professor and co-director of the Center for Business and the Environment at Yale, said that two of the biggest energy costs for laboratories are ventilation and freezing materials. Laboratories that work with hazardous chemicals require continuous ventilation to remove chemical vapor in the air and circulate in clean air. Other research groups must freeze lab samples for extended periods of time so that they don’t decay.

Kenneth Gillingham, an economics professor, further explained that researchers have an incentive to maintain the largest lab space they can. Even if they are not actively using a portion of their lab, they may choose not to alert University officials so that in the future they can hire additional students to work in the space. But maintaining this extra space levies additional energy costs.

Is Yale meeting its environmental aspirations?

At the start of the academic year, University President Peter Salovey appointed Gillingham to an institutional task force to calculate whether Yale could improve upon its goal of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Schlick said that the University has an obligation to speed up its progress towards net-zero emissions.

“I think it would be really, really shocking if Yale did not in the next couple of months come out with something saying they’re going to move up that deadline, seeing how devastated and quickly our system can collapse in a very short period of time when a global catastrophe hits,” Schlick said.

Yale’s pledge for net-zero emissions by 2050 is in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement.

“For an institution that always promotes the integrity of its research and its science, it’s not listening to that research if its goal is to become carbon neutral by 2050 when all of the science is saying zero-carbon by 2030 or 2040,” Schlick said. “[We] just need a higher level of ambition.”

The task force findings were initially set to be released around this time, according to John Bollier, task force chair and vice president for facilities and campus development. But now the release has been postponed indefinitely. According to Gillingham, the task force has finished its report and sent it to upper-level administrators. But the initiative has stalled with administrators occupied mitigating the pandemic’s effects on Yale’s goals as a leading research university.

“All members of the task force are working to keep various parts of the university functioning during this unusual time,” Bollier said in an email.

The delay in releasing the task force’s findings demonstrates one instance in which Yale’s aims as a research university clash with its environmental aspirations. The pandemic has posed financial challenges for the University, leading it to focus on navigating out of the economic crisis.

But Gillingham said that climate change will pose a long-standing threat to society. “We should continue to keep the environmental commitments of Yale public,” Gillingham said. “We don’t want COVID-19 to lead us to forget the long-term big picture.”

Gillingham said that the task force found that the University could reduce its carbon footprint by better moderating each lab’s energy needs. To do so, Bollier said, the University could assess the individual labs’ exact energy needs and make sure they were not exceeding them.

Yale’s researchers are racing to combat COVID-19 — conducting clinical trials for treatments, creating rapid-response test kits and experimenting with how best to test for the virus. 

“Yale’s main mission is to provide teaching and research that helps improve the world, so you don’t want to shut down the laboratories if they’re providing the guidance for the vaccine for the coronavirus,” Gillingham said.

But he added that there are viable ways to reduce the laboratories’ emissions without disturbing the work within. Gillingham explained that some labs may be equipped with ultra-clean rooms, but their research only requires clean room standards. Maintaining ultra-clean rooms is highly energy-intensive, and reverting the lab from ultra-clean to clean room standards could allow for less airflow to the space and therefore decreased energy usage.

But these alterations may require up-front costs for the University. Yale has taken a financial hit from the pandemic, and many administrators have turned their attention to other pressing considerations and have looked for areas to cut spending.

The delicate balance: weighing economic and environmental cost

In an early April message to faculty and staff members, University Provost Scott Strobel detailed the financial implications of the COVID-19 pandemic. Strobel wrote that the pandemic had wrought immediate and “substantial incremental costs and lost revenues” as well as longer-term revenue declines from the endowment’s investments.

“The University must begin to adjust to new realities resulting from the pandemic and the global economic downturn,” Strobel’s message reads. “Taking clear-eyed action is essential … to ensuring that Yale has the resources to sustain our mission as a global research university.”

But Tanya Wiedeking, Pierson College operations manager and Yale Carbon Charge Working Group co-adviser, said that this state of flux is an opportunity to make new commitments to environmental stewardship. “In a situation like this when we have to rethink everything, I think having a clear-eyed look at sustainability at Yale, this seems like a very good time to do that,” Wiedeking said. “I would hope that everybody at Yale does.”

Wiedeking’s remarks reflected those of global leaders, including United Nations Secretary-General  António Guterres. Guterres said on April 28 that the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic would offer a “profound opportunity” to create a more sustainable society.

Wiedeking leads a group of University administrators who strategize ways to engage students and faculty with the Yale Carbon Charge. The administrators who make up the group are all among those who receive the monthly statements of carbon emissions or have influence over how to respond to them — lead administrators, facilities superintendents and operations managers.

Like the task force, the group’s progress has been impacted by the pandemic. The group has continued meeting virtually throughout the pandemic, and Wiedeking said the Zoom meetings have proved as productive as in-person meetings, but she noticed that meeting members may have been forced to turn their attention away from sustainability and towards other considerations.

“I think because of the nature of our work, a lot of us perhaps now focus on budgets and financial challenges the University is facing,” she said. “I hope that is only temporary, and that we can soon turn our attention back to sustainability.”

Signore’s individual efforts

On an individual level, Signore has also focused on maintaining the University through the pandemic. He’s worked on a limited schedule, only commuting to campus a few days each week. Though he has warded off total unruliness, nature has reclaimed Yale’s campus in students’ absence. The lawns are overgrown, and emboldened groundhogs and turkeys venture among the old stone buildings and wrought-iron gates.

Though he misses the students, he reveled in the beauty of a quiet campus. “The campus is just gorgeous, there is just this flowing color and there’s flowers coming up everywhere,” Signore said. “It’s just beautiful, undisturbed nature.”

He’s tried to impart upon students an appreciation for greenery. In some residential colleges, including Ezra Stiles and Silliman, Signore and students plant their own vegetable and pollinator gardens. The colors are vibrant — with yellow corn, purple berries and small sweet tomatoes. Students have prepared popcorn for movie nights and berry muffins with the harvest. As of now, the Stiles garden is only a small green pocket of the residential college. It’s just large enough to be “nature’s classroom,” Signore said. But the plants brim over the stone border.

Signore has an idea to grow it. He wants to intersperse Yale’s more traditional landscaping — the rhododendrons and azaleas — with blueberries and other foods. He already drew up plans for an herb garden outside each dining hall door. Not everyone agrees with him; some think landscapes should look more corporate and traditional. But Signore wants them to produce food sustainably.

Signore’s predicted that one day the students he knows will tell their own children about the novel past when people trucked in food from faraway places and burned fallen leaves instead of letting them decompose into nutrients for soil. “At some point we’re going to have to go back to the way things were,” he said.

While students are away, Signore said, faculty and their families have tended to the small gardens. They hope to finish planting this summer to greet returning students with an array of colors.

“These gardens bring people together; it’s what they do,” Signore said. “This is an opportunity for a lot of us to be able to perfect these sustainable projects.” 

Signore has spent the last few weeks perfecting a modified irrigation clock, which now runs on renewable solar power. His work extending the battery life of his electric scooters sparked the idea for this project. Signore explained that he spends much of his time offshore on his boat, and often docks on small nearby islands and explores them on the electric scooters he brings. But with intermittent access to power, he had to find a way to charge his scooter batteries to sustain this hobby.

“You name it, I’m charging it with solar panels,” he said. He hopes to bring the innovation to his job at the University, where he maintains the campus’s about 250 irrigation systems, each one controlled by an irrigation clock, each one plugged into the power grid.

Using the same mechanisms he had to construct the solar-powered charging stations on his boat, Signore created a completely self-sufficient irrigation clock. Signore’s version, currently at his home, can be unplugged from the power grid. It runs off of stored battery power renewed from a small solar panel he can mount on a nearby building. He hopes to soon install the new clocks in buried boxes across campus.

“Realistically, how much power does an irrigation clock use?” Signore asked. “Not a whole lot; but it’s something, and it’s better than doing nothing,” he emphasized, lingering on the last word. And maybe it will inspire others to see spare time from the pandemic as an opportunity to innovate, to help the climate.

“It’s like, how do you eat an elephant?” Signore said. “One bite at a time.”

As individuals like Signore take small steps towards a more sustainable university, it’s not yet certain whether the institution will follow. While the Office of Sustainability has kept up its work, the pandemic has created a host of immediate problems for Yale’s administration to tackle, making it easier to set sustainability aside and focus on financial challenges. But recovery from the pandemic offers an opportunity to rebuild a more environmentally conscious Yale as the virus serves as a grim reminder of just how vulnerable humans are to nature.