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October 14, 2019

Guenther Works To Grow a Greener CMU

By Bruce Gerson

Steve Guenther is energized about the green energy on campus.

As university engineer and assistant vice president for Facilities Management and Campus Services, Guenther’s duties include managing Carnegie Mellon’s energy and utility consumption, its miles of complex utilities infrastructure, and the engineering aspects for new construction standards. He is passionate about CMU’s current green practices, its commitment to the United Nation’s Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs) and its pledge to become even more sustainable.

“I’m excited the provost has chosen sustainability as one of the areas he wants to emphasize,” Guenther said. “Sustainability is in CMU’s strategic plan as a value of the university, but to hear it articulated that clearly as a value, and the commitments he has made for the university is tremendous.”

Earlier this year, Provost Jim Garrett announced the creation of a campus-wide Sustainability Initiative to strengthen CMU’s commitment, elevate its engagement with the 17 UN SDGs, and improve green education, research and practices on campus. Garrett named Guenther a co-chair of the initiative’s steering committee along with University Professor David Dzombak, head of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, and Sarah Mendelson, distinguished service professor of public policy and head of Heinz College in Washington, D.C.

“The provost wants to make sure we’re moving forward with sustainability in education, research and practices. I bring forward the operations point of view,” Guenther said.

After participating in a September “Focus on Pittsburgh” panel on sustainability at the UN Climate Summit in New York, Garrett announced six university commitments in support of the SDGs, including creating a Voluntary University Review (VUR) by engaging the entire campus community. Garrett will report the findings at next year’s UN General Assembly.

“The VUR will look at our highlights and weaknesses. It will focus on where we’re excelling and opportunities where we can do better,” Guenther said.

CMU’s achievements include a 2019 gold rating from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, surpassing its silver rating in 2015. The university is ranked in the top 25% on the Sierra Club’s Cool Schools list and there are over 20 CMU buildings and renovation projects that have received LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.

The university has made a major investment in green power. It recently purchased 100% of its electricity over the next five years from a wind farm that is on CMU’s electrical grid.

As a project manager for Campus Design and Facility Development (CDFD) in the early 2000s, Guenther floated the idea of seeking CMU’s first LEED certification for Stever House.

“I brought that concept to our director of housing and luckily other people were interested, too,” he said. “It turned into a great story. Stever House became the first LEED-certified residence hall in the country, and since then CMU has made a major investment in sustainable design and construction practices.”

The university also has made a major investment in green power. It recently purchased 100% of its electricity over the next five years from a wind farm in Macon County, Illinois, that is on CMU’s electrical grid.

“For the past 10 years, we’ve bought enough Renewable Energy Credits, the mirror image of a carbon tax, to cover all of our electricity needs from Duquesne Light. We’ve been on the Environmental Protection Agency’s 100% green power list for a decade. But now, we’ve upped our game,” Guenther said.

“The Radford’s Run Wind Farm is committed to producing all of our energy requirements. The amount of electricity we use here is being put into the grid by the wind farm.”

“I’m a true believer there’s an element of sustainability in every aspect of the university. How do we create awareness and make that connection with everyone here?”

While Guenther feels “CMU is in a great place” in regard to sustainability, he believes education may be the key to realizing opportunities for improvement. He said the Sustainability Initiative will be launching a knowledge and attitudes survey to measure campus perceptions and green IQ.

“We want to understand how the whole university community feels about sustainability and what their practices are,” he said. “We don’t want to just focus on the people who are passionate about it. We want to see how it looks across all demographics and populations.

“I’m a true believer there’s an element of sustainability in every aspect of the university. How do we create awareness and make that connection with everyone here?”

Guenther is in his second stint at CMU. After working for CDFD from 1999 to 2002 — he earned an MBA as a part-time student at the Tepper School — he became a regional, vice president for operations for a global management services company in Chicago. He soon was selected to run its National Operations Excellence Group for facilities and dining. His positions required extensive travel and put him in great standing with Marriott hotels and American Airlines — but his pre-teen children were growing up fast. 

“I realized I needed to flip the scenario and put family back on top,” he said.

He returned to CMU in 2013 as director of facility operations and was recently promoted to university engineer and assistant vice president.

“It was great to come back to CMU,” Guenther said. “I knew the institution, I knew the people here and family was in the area. It’s been wonderful.”

In his spare time, Guenther is very active with his local Boy Scout Troop. This past summer he took five scouts on a 36-hour train ride to Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico, where they backpacked for 12 days and climbed Mt. Baldy at 12,441 feet above sea level. But that wasn’t the highpoint for Guenther — he preferred a more sustainable aspect.

“The best part of the trip was observing the teenage boys’ transformation as they disconnected from the World Wide Web and connected with each other,” he said.

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