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Minimizing Gemini’s Environmental Impact

April 27, 2010

Electricity company personnel have provided energy-related tips at both sites. Here Paul Collins discusses issues with CONAFE staff in Chile.

Environment-friendly changes have taken place after reviews of building cleaning products and routines.

Gemini's downward trend in total travel miles by staff from 2008 until March 2010. Between 2008 and 2009 Gemini realized a total reduction of about 23% in total air travel miles.

Gemini Observatory aims to be one of the most energy efficient astronomical facilities, with the highest standards of environmental protection. Since it first encouraged, in 2008, staff proposals to reduce its carbon footprint, the organization has formalized its energy planning efforts and developed many initiatives to reduce energy consumption and help the Observatory “tread more lightly on the Earth.”

There are many challenges to creating an effective, organization-wide energy-reduction program for two of the world’s largest telescopes, based in two countries, on two continents. Differing energy infrastructures, government systems, cultural norms, and business resources have all required us to remain flexible and creative as we work to reduce, re-use, and recycle wherever possible, but we have already chalked up several successes and a few of the highlights from this program follow:

Electricity

Chile enjoys relatively low electricity costs, but Hawaii’s are the highest in the United States. In February 2008, for example, the cost of electricity in Hawai‘i soared to a frightening $.44/kilowatt-hour (it is currently $.29, and heading up again).

Many people don’t realize how much electricity we use, or why air conditioning is so vital to an observatory’s operation. Gemini’s two mountaintop telescope facilities use 70 to 80 percent of our total electricity, simply to keep the temperature inside each dome in equilibrium with the expected nighttime outside air temperature. Air currents caused by warm air inside the dome can ruin the observing conditions, and also damage instruments/optics through thermal changes and condensation.

The remaining 20 to 30 percent of our electricity is used in the offices at the base facilities to run heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, lights, instruments and computer systems.

Replacing older chillers and AC units with new and more energy-efficient systems, changing the methods by which the domes are cooled, installing programmable thermostats and motion-sensing light switches and our use of a distributed power management system in our computer networks have all contributed to important reductions in our electricity consumption, both in the offices and at the telescopes. We are currently reviewing plans for installing photovoltaic panels on our facilities in Hawai’i during 2010 that would save several tens of thousands of dollars per year and reduce our exposure to future energy price increases.



















Travel

Scientists and engineers need to travel frequently for research and conferences. Our policy now is to encourage our staff to limit travel whenever possible by using interactive communication technologies. And, by monitoring and publishing our staff’s “travel footprint,” we also make staff aware of their carbon impact for each trip. These efforts produced a 23% reduction in our air-travel carbon footprint in 2009. We’ve also reduced the number of miles driven by Gemini vehicles by supporting shared transportation and installing bicycle racks, which are available at both base facilities to encourage emission-free commuting.



















Recycling

In Hawai‘i, recycling is supported through county-wide recycling and a statewide returnable beverage container program. This made it simple for us to expand our initial recycling efforts at Gemini North to include cardboard, office paper, plastic, glass, and metal. In La Serena, however, similar programs don’t yet exist. So Gemini South initiated its own recycling program, which has become a model for other organizations.

At both sites, we encourage employees to bring in coffee mugs and kitchenware from home, to reduce the amount of trash generated by disposable items. Office paper and kitchen supplies are made from recycled and biodegradable materials. Batteries, ink, and toner cartridges are now recharged or recycled.

Looking to embed sustainable practices for the long term, we’re deepening and broadening our in-house expertise in energy efficiency matters (via online further education courses, webcasts and conferences). Gemini has joined the U.S. Green Building Council, and is using the USGBC’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program as a roadmap to create an even more efficient and sustainable program for the future. We’re also utilizing available external consulting expertise and resources, such as the US Department of Energy’s innovative Federal Energy Management Program.

We have just taken some vital first steps on this important journey, but Gemini is very much committed to the continuous improvement of this program, to ensure that we operate responsibly in the interests of our communities, local and global, now and always.