Sustainability Spotlight: Mark Gardner, ACSEM Staff Member

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We met with Mark Gardner, Rice’s Manager of Energy Strategy and Utility Program Development, to talk about campus energy strategy; life philosophies; car-free living; and his whole foods, plant-based diet.

Describe your role as a staff member at Rice.
Mark Gardner: I work within Rice’s Administrative Center for Sustainability and Energy Management (ACSEM, pronounced “axiom”), and am mostly involved in purchasing utilities (electricity, natural gas and water) and distributing the associated charges out to campus departments. This process involves many people, but I take on the “strategy” part of utility procurement.

What does “sustainability” mean to you?
MG: Most people think of saving the environment when they use the word “sustainability,” but to me it is much more than that. I think of sustaining Rice University as we move into the future, which incorporates economic sustainability.

Personally, my sustainability goals are both the physical and financial sustainability of myself. This leads me to make decisions to stay healthy through diet and exercise as well as living within my means so I that have a sustainable financial future.

Globally, I think of sustaining the human race as the number one goal. This thought process is what makes me follow space travel and the possibility of humans living on other planets. Environmental sustainability and saving life on this planet is simply a subset of this.

In what ways have you been able to help Rice reduce its carbon footprint through electricity purchasing?
MG: The way we purchase electricity is very complex. It’s like a chess game in which you are moving pieces--energy assets--against the dynamic market. We buy electricity on an hourly basis, keeping up with hourly changes in the market. To answer your question, my main focus is to make all the pieces line up in the most cost effective way, but there have been several happy surprises where we have been able to have a win-win situation of simultaneously saving money and reducing our carbon footprint.

One of my favorite moments is when we discovered that the shape of Rice’s hourly electrical profile - which describes how much electricity we consume as a campus at a given time - fits the shape of the profile of solar power generated by an array of photovoltaics in west Texas. Through our electricity provider MP2 Energy, we traded some of our pre-purchased electricity for electricity generated by that solar array at no increase in cost. This is considered to be the first unsubsidized fossil fuel-generated “brown” power to solar-generated “renewable” power swap in Texas.

Do you think electricity from renewables – like solar and wind – will ever be cheaper than electricity from fossil fuel sources like natural gas?
MG: Yes I do. In fact, under certain conditions, we are already there. Several factors are involved that will make this happen. Turning sunlight into power is getting cheaper and cheaper all the time at an exponential rate. Compare this to the cost of mining natural gas and oil, in which costs tend to increase over time because there is a limited supply and it gets harder to find. The case for wind power is a little more complicated. The sun shines when you need the electricity the most but wind doesn’t necessarily work that way. This causes a problem of volatility that batteries or some other storage solution will solve. It’s just a matter of time.

You completely changed your approach to eating a few years ago and now follow a diet that has a much lower impact on the planet. What changes did you make, and what are the benefits?
MG: I probably have the lowest carbon footprint of anyone I know, but this is simply a byproduct of my lifestyle; sustainability was not the goal. I am now mostly a raw food vegetarian and I live close to work. These two simple changes have had a dramatic effect on my life. I don’t have a car, a TV, a microwave, a dishwasher, or a garbage disposal. I ride my bicycle everywhere unless it’s raining or too far of a trip. Other times, I use Uber or ZipCar. I shop for food at farmers markets either here at Rice or elsewhere because I like fresh organic foods that have not been sitting on a truck for days before being placed on supermarket shelves.

What new foods have you discovered as a result of your new diet?
MG: I have read probably a dozen books on health and longevity. Some of my favorite books are “How Not To Die” by Michael Greger, “Eating on the Wild Side” by Jo Robinson, and “The CR Way” by Paul McGlothin and Meredith Averill. So, to answer your question, I have added turmeric and black pepper to my breakfast every morning. I eat lots of garlic, onions, tomatoes, nuts, seeds and steamed beans. I don’t eat animal protein unless it’s at the annual Facilities Engineering and Planning departmental barbeque or for a special occasion.

Are you happy with the decision to sell your truck and go car-free?
MG: Making that change was amazing. I know it’s not for everyone, but the expense of owning and maintaining vehicles that spend 95% of their time unused is just not sustainable for the human race. It actually costs about $500 per month to keep a vehicle if you count the cost of depreciation, maintenance, insurance, washing, and parking. I can take a ZipCar to the store and back for about $8, and this includes gas and insurance. Plus, I have several new, clean cars to choose from and I don’t have to pay parking costs.

About 10 years ago, I started talking about autonomous vehicles and people just laughed at me. I never foresaw the path that Uber would take to get there. Uber plans to replace the Uber driver with an autonomous vehicle in the future. When this happens, the cost per mile may go below 50 cents per mile; some say 25 cents. You will be able to ride Uber for 1,000 miles per month for less than the cost of owning your own car.

You spend a lot of time thinking about the future in your job. In what ways do you think your job – and Rice – will be different in the next five to ten years?
MG: This is a good question. I think about this all the time. Some technologies grow exponentially, and these are the ones that truly disrupt the status quo, whereas others grow linearly, and therefore only make incremental changes. Uber would be an example of the exponential, whereas traditional cab companies only expand linearly. Exponential thinking is the key to understanding where we are going and how we are changing. My job is to find these exponential technologies and paths, use them, and educate my coworkers about them.

An example of exponential change is crowdsourcing, which is a big focus for me now. There is a similarity between crowdsourcing and the Uber platform. They both have humans in the middle to make the platform work. In the future, artificially intelligent agents or Web Apps will replace the crowdsourced person, but there is already tremendous value in using crowdsourcing to leverage the work you do.

As for Rice, it will have to figure out how to embrace online education. Physical brick and mortar structures such as lecture halls and parking garages will be under pressure to change.

You clearly see a connection between the at-times exponential advancement of technology and our ability to become more environmentally sustainable.
MG: Right! One of my favorite examples to describe this is from a presentation I gave at the Jones Business School about a year ago. I asked the class if it is more sustainable to deliver a letter to a friend on horseback from a grass-fed horse or to deliver it by car. Most people chose the grass-fed horse.

My hour long presentation started with a pony express rider carrying his mail, which turns out to be about 1 megabyte of data. It actually took 190 horses to get that megabyte via pony express across the country. I calculated how much land was needed to feed those horses and came up with the number of acres per megabyte per month. Carrying this formula forward through the eras of telegraph, telephone, television, and then the Internet, we follow an exponential curve, similar to Moore’s law, to the year 2016.

So, how many acres would it take in 2016 to feed all the horses needed to carry all the Internet traffic? The answer is the equivalent of 500,000 earths.

This example shows that the path to sustainability is not always intuitive. It becomes apparent that the path to real sustainability lies in the use of technology; more specifically, the exponential component of technology. Following the exponential change of technology is almost a litmus test for a sustainable future.

Finding this exponential, sustainable future and sharing it with others is my main focus here at Rice University.

You’re an avid reader and you listen regularly to podcasts. Do you have recommendations to share?
MG: I would suggest finding some thought leaders that you like and following them on social media and reading their books. I have several favorites: Ray Kurzweil, Peter Diamandis, Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, Aubrey de Grey, and Seth Godin to name a few.

What is your retirement dream?
MG: I don’t have a clue. I’ll probably be flexible and leave my options open for as long as I can. I may roam from one national park to another as a volunteer trying to stay as healthy as possible. I will, however, be logging into the Internet daily. I like the balance of “High Tech/High Touch” that author John Naisbitt talks about.