Published: April 20, 2018

MSU student combats climate change one solar panel at a time

By: Jessica Hanna Media Communications

After listening to the audiobook, “Unstoppable” by Bill Nye, Sam Berndt, a Michigan State University graduate student studying computer science, was inspired to become a force against climate change. After moving into the David Bowie Memorial Cooperative in August 2016, he knew that he wanted to find sustainable energy solutions to work towards making all cooperatives 100-percent carbon neutral. 

Bowie is one of 17 houses in the MSU Student Housing Cooperative, or SHC, a nonprofit organization that provides off-campus housing for more than 240 students and local residents.

Members of MSU Cooperatives are required to have house jobs. Being house chef didn’t appeal to Berndt, and it just so happened the house needed a board representative. He thought that taking on the role would allow him to initiate change. 

After attending the mandatory board retreat, where members learn about the MSU SHC’s history, Berndt heard about a sustainability fellowship and decided to call a meeting to decipher who, on the board, might be interested in creating a green energy initiative. 

By September 2016, Berndt became the Sustainability Fellow for the MSU SHC and brought the Green Energy Initiative and Sustainability Committee to life. 

A single cooperative home can house five to 29 members. Bowie has 21 residents, four bathrooms, four refrigerators, three with freezers, two washers, two dryers and one industrial sized refrigerator. With so many people and appliances in a single house, there’s bound to be a lot of energy usage. 

Bowie, alone, used 33,443 kilowatt hours in 2016, which is equivalent to releasing 34,284 pounds of carbon dioxide into the environment. 

“The SHC emits about 853 pounds of CO2 per day,” Berndt said. “That’s 240 people living in a nation of 325 million people, on a planet with 7.4 billion people. This scared me.” 

Berndt decided to look into using solar power in the cooperative houses, but he found out that before doing so, the cooperatives were going to have to cut down their energy usage. 

In search of help, Berndt contacted John Krzystowczyk, Lansing Board of Water and Light energy analyst. 

Krzystowczyk gave Berndt a $50,000 grant to help the Green Energy Initiative increase energy efficiency in cooperative houses. The MSU SHC used the money to begin making all of their homes more sustainable. 

“Every single lightbulb in the SHC, all 17 houses, are full of LEDs, whether they’re the linear LEDs or just the regular LEDs,” Berndt said. “We have Energy Star certified fridges and right now we’re working on exterior lighting. That money is specifically to be used for energy reduction. It’s helped a lot.”

Energy usage in the Bowie house decreased to 28,457 kilowatt hours, equaling 29,172 pounds of carbon dioxide in 2017 – a nearly 15-percent improvement.  

“Our goal as a cooperative now is to install $30,000 worth of solar panels onto one of our roofs,” Berndt said. “We decided that Bowie would be the first one to do it because it has a big, flat roof.” 

Berndt then created a proposal for the MSU SHC Board of Directors in hopes of getting funding to achieve the cooperative’s goal. While he was given $15,000, it wasn’t enough. 

With the money that Berndt and his team were given, they would only be able to pay for enough solar panels to fill half of the roof, or 30 percent of Bowie’s energy consumption, so Berndt asked the community to help raise another $15,000 to fill the entirety of the roof. 

His GoFundMe fundraiser has raised $2,170 in the last ten months. 

“The team that we have is really passionate about what we’re doing, and we’re trying to push this forward,” Berndt said. 

The MSU SHC is doing much more to make their houses more sustainable. They’re working on creating a composting unit for all houses as well as creating a community garden, where members would be able to farm and grow their own produce. 

Berndt will be presenting his efforts to a community forum on April 28 in hopes that they will join him in becoming more energy efficient. 

“My goal is to inspire people,” Berndt said. “I literally had no idea what I was doing, but if you put in the effort, eventually those baby steps will lead into something pretty amazing. I hope I can inspire one person to do something similar and to hopefully inspire someone else.” 

The David Bowie Memorial cooperative will be the first of the cooperative houses to have solar panels. Photo courtesy of Sam Berndt.