When Cecil Scheib moved to New York City in 2007, his primary work experience consisted of establishing and running an ecovillage called Dancing Rabbit. Considering that his duties at this northeast Missouri community had included brewing beer and installing solar panels, he thought that in New York he'd be lucky if he got hired for data entry at a law firm. Instead, he was hired as director of energy and sustainability at New York University, where in four years he has helped cut water usage by 100 million gallons per year and greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent. "This little off-the-grid thing I did actually ended up landing me a job in New York City, which was not the expectation," he says.
The story of how Scheib came to manage sustainability for a 70,000-person, downtown Manhattan campus starts on a parcel of land in a Show-Me State county so sparsely populated that it doesn't have a single traffic light. In 1997, Scheib and his former Synergy housemates Tony Sirna, '94, and David Hauri, PhD, '96, began building the ecovillage they had been planning for five years. Because their land was off the grid, they dropped a few solar panels on the ground to power construction tools and built their homes. Through the Internet and word of mouth, awareness of Dancing Rabbit grew. It now houses 75 people, who compost their waste, drink filtered rainwater collected from roofs, use only solar and wind power, and share three biodiesel-fueled cars.
As Dancing Rabbit matured, Scheib realized it could survive without him and that he could pursue another bucket-list goal: living in New York City. Scheib transitioned easily from ecovillage to Greenwich Village. "Where else in the U.S. could you not have a car and have that be normal—other than Manhattan or the ecovillage?" he says.
His new job—like the old—is about efficiency. At NYU, he installed occupancy sensors that turn off lights and air-conditioning units when no one is around, reaping savings that outweighed costs as quickly as within a few months. These and other measures saved energy equivalent to taking 25,000 New York City homes off the grid for a year.
His impact has extended beyond NYU. Scheib served on the committee that reviewed New York City's building code revisions. Representatives from real estate heavyweights testified that mandating occupancy sensors would be too expensive. "I said, 'Absolutely not. We [NYU] did 4,000 of them with a payback of a few months, so anyone can do it from their normal operating budget,'" Scheib says. "And now it's law."
In January, NYU opened a 13.4-megawatt cogeneration power plant that heats and cools buildings with heat left over from power generation. Scheib also helped create a program to donate students' end-of-year discards to charity; in 2010 it diverted 60 tons of materials from landfills. He planted a native woodland garden that shows the vegetation of Manhattan before Europeans arrived.
Dancing Rabbit co-founder Sirna says Scheib is "a brilliant guy with a real passion for sustainability and clear thinking on the topic." Scheib had one such clear thought when he arrived at NYU. He put a power meter on a vending machine, trying to determine whether occupancy sensors were cost-effective. Reading the meter a few weeks later, "I realized [the vending machine] was using as much energy as the six-bedroom house I built at Dancing Rabbit."
LAURA SHIN, '97, is a writer in New York.