Down With OPP? Well, You Should Be!
No, I’m not talking about the hit song from Naughty By Nature. This OPP (the Office of the Physical Plant) includes the people behind the curtain who oversee the many facets of life at Penn State, particularly the infrastructure and numerous building projects on campus.
I sat down with Paul Ruskin, the Business Operations Coordinator of OPP and Penn State alumnus, who put into perspective just how much time, effort, and money it takes to create a truly sustainable university.
At a campus with 8,556 acres, 956 buildings, and more than 44,000 students, Ruskin compares the role of OPP to the nostalgic video game, SimCity. Essentially, OPP maximizes the efficiency of how the school operates by balancing the needs of academic departments, researchers, and other school services. With 1,388 staff and union members, OPP must take into account every aspect of the university when meeting over 12,000 state and federal regulations while simultaneously reducing the carbon footprint and expenses of the school.
“[University Park] is a city in the wilderness,” Ruskin said. “It is far larger and more complex than most people think about.”
Ruskin said this campus requires a variety of specialized skills in order to face everyday challenges. OPP’s self-sufficiency comes from the office’s several fields of expertise ranging in every area imaginable: plumbing, electricity, engineering, landscaping, architecture, forestry, masonry, etc. There is even an elevator repair team in case of an emergency where immediate action is needed.
Ruskin has served the Penn State community for the past 38 years, spending the past 15 devoted to OPP and the ecological development of the university. Now a major player in the operations of University Park, Ruskin acknowledges how big of an effect his team has on the campus.
“OPP is so integrated into the life of Penn State,” Ruskin said. “We’re always working behind the scenes making Penn State better in many, many ways.”
Ever since he was a freshman in the fall of 1965, Ruskin took an interest in the energy conservation of the university and other environmentally conscious behaviors, from shutting off lights in unoccupied classrooms to assisting in the early stages of Penn State’s recycling program.
“We didn’t used to have any recycling on campus,” Ruskin said. “Now, we have over 5,000 recycling bins on campus.”
Recycling has practically become an official school policy. According to Ruskin, Penn State now recycles 64 percent of the waste from campus, while most universities are recycling only 15 to 20 percent. The removal of trash costs the school $70 per ton, while it only costs $10 per ton to recycle recyclables. The more that students recycle, the lower the expenses will be for the school.
“We encourage students to partner with OPP in adopting what I would call a ‘sustainable lifestyle,'” Ruskin said. “If you have a lifestyle in which you minimize waste of everything, we can all have a happier life.”
OPP optimizes the life of students and faculty through seasonal, annual, and ongoing projects. One of OPP’s biggest projects that I discussed with Paul Ruskin was the conversion of the West Campus Steam Plant from coal to natural gas. Penn State hopes to be completely off coal by January 2016 in order to meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) standards.
On a cold winter day, Penn State will bring in up to 15 coal trucks in order to heat the school. With the Columbia Gas pipeline, Penn State will meet its fuel needs while further reducing its carbon footprint and produce cleaner air in Centre County. Construction has just started going up Porter Road by the stadium, then up University Drive to Park Ave. During the spring and into the summer, OPP will work its way down Curtin Road toward the West Campus Steam Plant on Burrowes Road.
“The threat of carbon dioxide has crept up on our civilization and we simply have to control that,” Ruskin said. “We are making adjustments in how we behave.”
OPP spends about $10 million a year in energy conservation programs to retrofit old buildings and make them more efficient. By doing this, OPP has reduced Penn State’s carbon emissions by 18 percent since 2005 and have done that primarily through adapting new technologies. In that same time, the school has added 1.1 million square feet of space, which shows how sustainable Penn State has become.
OPP’s new goal is to reach a 35 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2020, but that is not an easy task considering the perpetual expansion of the school. Ruskin said that OPP is constantly monitoring new technologies in the different fields of science in order to thoroughly implement new methods of renewable energy.
“Alternative energy will ultimately be all we have left because the fossil fuels are all going to run out eventually,” Ruskin said. “This planet is finite; We are not going to be able to mine things from the planet forever.”
OPP also partners with multiple academic departments to research the best plans of action. One notable example for Ruskin is Penn State meteorology, which has been able to predict what parts of campus will accumulate more snow in previous years. Another example is the plant pathology department in the College of Agriculture that has been prolonging the rotting away of Penn State’s 300 Elm trees.
“The Elms are under attack by a double disease threat,” Ruskin said. “They have Elm yellows and Dutch Elm disease and Penn State has one of the last remaining strands of Elm trees in the country.”
Ruskin claims that despite the efforts of OPP, there is a high probability that there will be no more Elms left on campus within the next five to 10 years. As a result, OPP is planting a diverse set of tree species in order to avoid another total decimation at University Park.
Every day is a new challenge for Ruskin and his team, which is why he discussed the need for OPP to partner with students and faculty to assist in the development of solutions to Penn State’s problems.
“I think Penn State students are a terrific breed of people,” Ruskin said. “When they are here, they are focused on their courses and their future careers. It’s easy for them not to look behind the curtain and see the many things that OPP does for them.”
Ruskin’s job primarily deals with the constant interaction with everyone in the community in order to meet the university’s needs. By creating a sustainable environment for students and faculty, Penn State can become a place of more consciously aware citizens where we acquire more responsible habits.
Paul Ruskin asks students to take the time to say thank you to the employees of OPP that we pass every day. The office’s job is to address everything that is wrong with the school and they really enjoy hearing that they are doing an excellent job in managing the campus.
“We are the people behind the curtain,” Ruskin said. “And we invite people to take a look behind the curtain and be able to appreciate what’s being done for them.”
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“As we work together to make the impact as least disruptive as possible to our students and employees, we strongly urge Congress and the president to end this impasse.”
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