Union College is about to get a little greener, thanks to the efforts of sophomore Sara Covelli.
The 19-year-old, who is majoring in environmental policy and minoring in climate change, recently received two college-based grants that will be used to add solar panels to an on-campus apartment building and create the college’s first rain garden.
Covelli heard about the grant opportunities through the U-Sustain Committee, an organization that promotes sustainability on campus. Aware that a new apartment building for upperclassmen was going to be built, she decided to investigate what could be done to make the project more eco-friendly.
“I spoke with several people in facilities, and they explained to me that solar panels weren’t included in the design plan, so I was like, ‘OK, let me apply for that,’ ” the Long Island resident recounted.
The building was designed with solar photovoltaic and solar thermal systems in mind, but it was not in the original plan to have those features installed before the building opened, said Meghan Haley-Quigley, sustainability coordinator for Union College.
Covelli later teamed with two other Union students on the solar project: senior Nick Weidhauss, a geology major, and senior Ted Huss, who is studying electrical engineering. The students researched local solar companies, obtained a proposal and submitted it to the college.
“The building was going to be solar-ready,” said Haley-Quigley. “Sara and Ted and Nick’s project has allowed us to accelerate that to bring PV into the building right at the start. They proposed an eight-kilowatt system, and we’ve upgraded it to a 30-kilowatt system.”
Originally a $25,000 project, the solar initiative has been upgraded to a $100,000 project, all funded by grant money, Covelli said.
The project is funded by a “green fee” students pay as part of their student activities fee. The money goes into a fund set aside for large-scale student projects to help the college obtain its goal of carbon neutrality, Haley-Quigley explained.
Covelli, Weidhauss and Huss are now working with the project team to develop an interactive kiosk for the building and some other educational features to highlight the building’s green features.
“Students and people who visit the building can walk up and see in live data how much of the energy for the building is being powered by the solar panels. It should be pretty neat,” Covelli said.
The building is slated to open this fall, Haley-Quigley said.
A second on-campus green initiative spearheaded by Covelli is a rain garden, to be located in front of the college’s Eco House student residence at 712 Roger Hull Place. The garden, which will feature plants that can tolerate moisture extremes, will serve as a natural stormwater runoff filtration system and help reduce the amount of groundwater that seeps through the building’s stone foundation.
Covelli said she became interested in rain gardens last summer, while working for Nassau County’s Soil and Water Conservation District and the town of Oyster Bay’s environmental resources department.
“The major project that we focused on over the summer was to put rain gardens in residential areas, creating a rain garden program with incentives for homeowners to put one in front of their house. I fell in love with rain gardens,” she said. “I think they’re absolutely awesome and something so simple that any homeowner could do.”
The project, funded by a $2,000 Union College Presidential Green Grant, will get underway this spring.
“I think there’s so many places in which Union can improve sustainability-wise, and I just want to be a part of that and do whatever I can to assist in that,” Covelli said.
Her goal is to continue working on sustainability initiatives once she graduates. She said she hopes to attend New York University and study in its environmental law program.
“I definitely want to go into environmental law. I can see myself working at a national level or state level, who knows? Or maybe working for a private company. But any way that I can create environmental policies, that’s kind of my main goal, to make better environmental policies,” she said.
Covelli’s work at Union caught the attention of Tikva Morrow, who writes a blog for Hometalk, an online home and garden website that Morrow said gets about 7 million visits each month. Morrow featured Covelli’s green initiatives in her blog several weeks ago. She said she’s looked at many sustainability initiatives on college and university web pages, and Covelli’s work stood out.
“Colleges, from what I’ve seen, are constantly asking students to come forward with ideas or to take on different green projects, but I haven’t seen [anything] to the scale of what she’s done, especially when it comes to this [solar] initiative,” Morrow said. “She’s definitely one of a kind in terms of what she’s trying to accomplish and her attitude towards it.”