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Re-charging sustainability

Zeng ’14 installs electric chargers in three locations on campus

By Rebecca Heller
On September 17, 2013

Imagine having cars that don't rely on gasoline and plugging them in to charge, just like cell phones and laptops. Picture having these charging stations for cars ubiquitous in public places, not confined to the garages of a few people who make a special effort to acquire them. Seem futuristic? Not to Vivian Zeng '14, who spent her summer planning and overseeing the installation of three charging stations for electric vehicles on Brandeis' campus.
The charging stations, which Zeng fondly calls her "brainchildren," have three locations: the parking lot at the Gosman Sports and Convocation Center, in the Tower parking lot near the Mandel Center for the Humanities and in the Admissions parking lot next to the Slosberg Music Recital Hall. They are free and open to the public.
Zeng, a senior majoring in Environmental Studies and Health: Science, Society, and Policy, and minoring in Legal Studies, first became interested in electric vehicles in Prof. Laura Goldin's (AMST) "Greening of the Ivory Tower" class, but charging stations were not her original focus. One of the components of the class is to do a greening project, the focus of which is to "think of ways you can improve Brandeis' campus sustainability."
Zeng's first project was not related to charging stations, but about getting an electric vehicle for Media and Technology Services, where Zeng works. "To get around, we use this gasoline golf cart. I applied to get an electric vehicle, and I was rejected on the grounds that it's too department-based and it should be more of a campus thing," she said. Goldin suggested switching the focus to acquiring a charging station, and Zeng carried the project from there.
Zeng officially began the project eight months ago. In order to fund the purchase and installation of the charging stations, she received money from the Brandeis Sustainability Fund and from the U.S. Department of Energy, which funded the project after approving a grant proposal for it. Once she obtained funding, the project involved "a lot of coordinating with the contractor, the campus electrician, the representative from the company ... it was a lot of meetings and meetings and meetings and then finally the shipment arrived for the stations," Zeng said.
Though the process took approximately eight months to come to fruition, Zeng says that the administration was helpful in implementing the project: "The administration's been really supportive. For EV stations it was really easy because all you needed was an electric source from a building, so we chose the new location of these stations to be close to buildings so that we could tap the new electricity grid there".
Despite the limitations of old buildings, Zeng thinks that Brandeis is "trying to be a lot more sustainable. And you can see that with a lot of the other BSF projects". For instance, one BSF project involves installing outdoor water fountains so that people don't have to buy water bottles. "It's an awareness issue, I think," she says, "A lot of students don't really know that we're trying hard to be more sustainable."
Since the charging stations were installed just two weeks ago, it is not yet clear how much use the they will get. However, Zeng hopes that the visibility of the stations on campus will inspire students, faculty and staff to be more aware of alternatives to cars that run on gasoline, and encourage them to choose an electric vehicle when they purchase their next car. The stations are also free to use in order to incentivize the purchase of electric vehicles. Zeng explains "I think people really need to see change in order for them to be inspired to do more change. I really think electric vehicles are one of those things that are unfortunately the stepping stone to a better, more sustainable mode of transportation".
Zeng acknowledges that most college students will not own electric vehicles because of the high costs, but notes that the stations will be useful to individuals other than Brandeis students as well. In the past, Zeng has received multiple calls from visitors, including guest lecturers, "asking if we have an EV [charging] station on campus". We had to say no, "and we couldn't even give much information about the sites in Waltham" she said.
There are three EV charging stations already located in Waltham, so the three new ones added at Brandeis double the number of stations available for local use.
In the long-term, though, Zeng hopes to move beyond the specific focus of electric vehicles. "I like seeing sustainability in action," she says, "I'm a huge fan of trying to do projects like this, but what I am seriously passionate about is environmental justice issues."
In particular, Zeng would like to change the fact that minority neighborhoods often bear most of the impact from pollution and other environmental issues: "I grew up in a minority neighborhood in New York City, so I've seen that; I grew up in that."
Zeng hopes to go to graduate school for public health with a focus in environmental health or environmental epidemiology. "Hopefully once I get the science down, I can then tackle the policy," she said. "Nowadays, policymakers are often ignorant of the science in their own policy plans-I refuse to make that mistake."

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