Case Study

Emissions Initiative Makes Yellowstone More Environmentally Friendly

Published: April 20, 2010

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Yellowstone National Park, site of a unique natural environment, is becoming more environmentally friendly. Under a program directed by GTRI, Georgia Tech student interns are helping park managers develop ways to reduce human impact at this much-visited natural wonder.

The four interns spent summer 2009 at Yellowstone, assisting the park's environmental protection office. Funded by the Yellowstone Park Foundation (YPF), the interns worked on projects that focused on a single goal - reducing the park's greenhouse-gas emissions. Plans call for six interns to work at the park during summer 2010.

The effort is part of the Yellowstone Environmental Stewardship (YES!) Initiative, a multi-year campaign to reduce the park's environmental footprint while also increasing operational efficiency and preserving resources. Supported by the YPF, the park has projects underway or planned in six areas - energy, transportation, water conservation, waste reduction, green purchasing, and leadership/education.

"Yellowstone's goal is to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 30 percent by 2016, compared to 2007 levels," said Kevin Caravati, a GTRI senior research scientist who manages the Environmental Stewardship Intern Program at Georgia Tech. "The challenge for our students is finding ways to reduce the park's emissions without compromising its historic qualities. For example, we can't just go into a hundred-year-old log structure and start replacing walls."

Annually, human activities at Yellowstone are responsible for about 40,000 metric tons of carbon-dioxide equivalents, a measure of global-warming potential. Jim Evanoff, the park's environmental protection specialist, explains that man-made emissions come from three main sources: electricity consumption, mobile combustion from motor vehicles, and stationary combustion from activities such as heating and cooking.

"Our 10,000 geothermal features emit a very large amount of carbon-dioxide equivalents, but we're clearly not going to change any of them," he said. "That leaves us with manmade emissions sources - and in that area there is a lot that we can change."

The area of concern is vast, Evanoff explained. It includes the entire 22-million-acre Yellowstone ecosystem, consisting of two national parks - Yellowstone and Grand Teton - plus six national forest units and two fish and wildlife units. The aim is to launch sustainability initiatives that will reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from all these units.

The emissions issue has been hard for park personnel to tackle alone, he said. During the summer months a multitude of visitors - and often forest fires - keeps park personnel busy; in winter, mobility is severely limited.

But the interns' presence in summer 2009 changed that, Evanoff said. The four young people, all recent Georgia Tech graduates, made significant progress on a variety of emissions-related projects:

• Tristan Hall, who recently earned a master's degree in architecture and was a GTRI co-op student, conducted architectural and energy-efficiency studies on a large number of Yellowstone buildings.

• Michael Harris, who holds a bachelor's and a master's degree in civil and environmental engineering and was a GTRI co-op, conducted water resources research for micro-hydropower installations that could augment the park's electricity supplies.

• Katherine Larson, who earned a master's degree in aerospace engineering, worked on messaging to help visitors better understand the park's environmental challenges.

• Angela Rice, who holds a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering and was a GTRI co-op, spent a second summer at Yellowstone working on the reporting and management of data related to energy and sustainability.

Their efforts have not gone unnoticed at the park.

"The Georgia Tech interns really evolved into a temporary staff for me," Evanoff said. "They accomplished tasks that I've had in mind for years - and some I hadn't even thought of. Having such a talented, highly motivated staff dedicated to the preservation of this special place - even for a few months of the year - has been very fruitful."

Each student was willing to take on a wide range of tasks, he said. For example, Rice worked on data collection and analysis pertaining to usage of electricity and stationary-combustion fuels like propane, and she performed energy audits that included the historic Lamar Buffalo Ranch in Yellowstone's scenic Lamar Valley. She also helped prepare a revamped trash-routing plan that could save fuel as well as help protect the park's bear population.

Rice also worked with Larson on the first-ever Yellowstone Annual Sustainability Report. The document details the greenhouse-gas challenge, as well as the park's current status and future plans for improving sustainability.

Harris studied the park's water features, evaluating the feasibility of future small hydropower installations such as water turbines that could supplement existing photovoltaic electricity generation. He also examined water-use records for the entire park, moving available data from notebooks to computers, with an eye to more-efficient water usage.

Hall developed short- and long-term plans for replacing windows and doors in the park's historic structures. He also developed plans for similar upgrades in non-historic public and residential buildings. His analysis is supporting energy-efficiency upgrades made possible by building-material donations from Andersen Corp. and by federal stimulus funding.

Hall is now working full-time for Yellowstone as a project manager and as the park's internship coordinator. Summer 2010 plans call for him to supervise six interns, who will work on projects involving energy, water, sustainability, biology, engineering and marketing.

"Yellowstone is really a living laboratory for Georgia Tech," Caravati said. "To become fully engaged on energy and sustainability issues, it's good to get our people out in a setting where they can grasp the scale of what they're working on, and learn how to make things happen in the real world."