James O’Connor works with, and through, a staggering amount of administrative tasks to maintain sustainability at Stony Brook University.
As Director of Sustainability and Transportation Operations at Stony Brook University, he oversees projects ranging from electricity conservation initiatives and electric vehicle charging stations to a bike share system and solar-powered bus stops.
“It’s a balancing act,” O’Connor said, discussing the breadth of his job description. “For example, I might go from a print initiative project for an hour, which talks about saving paper, saving toner and recycling e-waste and toner, then jump to something like a request for information on an electric-powered bus.
“So every day is different, you have to have the ability to track projects and try to quantify those aspects,” he said.
Working in the Office of Sustainability’s Facilities and Services building, O’Connor’s office is located next to Stony Brook’s very own power plant. He proudly explained that the cogeneration facility uses natural gas and is one of the few in the country. It helped keep Stony Brook—and its hospital—operational during much of Hurricane Sandy.
While there are, of course, personal effects in his office—like a doll from Monsters Inc.—by far the loudest objects are two giant signs: one for “Wolf Ride,” Stony Brook’s bike sharing program, and one for the organic garden, which grew vegetables for Campus Dining services over the summer and closed last week for the upcoming winter. O’Connor considers each project a success and hopes to expand them both.
“I know for example, this afternoon, we will talk about the future of bike share here and [go through] the steps to grow it over the next couple of years,” he said on Sept. 20.
A local Long Islander, O’Connor got his Bachelor of Civil Engineering degree from Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey. After receiving his Master of Business Administration from Arizona State University, he went on to work as operations and transportation coordinator for United States Tennis Association.
“I was more into the operation side, so I enjoyed working in the field and providing services,” he said, “such as transportation and parking to guests that attended the U.S. Open in Flushing, Queens.”
O’Connor began work at Stony Brook in Transportation and Parking–a field he still oversees in part–a little more than seven years ago. His work in parking operation included configuring the efficiency of car parks, like proximity and ease of access between buildings and parking spaces.
“I started here in that field with a keen interest in operating a transit service and a central service for the community to use,” O’Connor said. “So that provides transportation, it provides parking, making sure that we have other things that go on behind the scenes.”
The role soon expanded into other functions, following O’Connor’s desire to lower fuel consumption at work for environmental and economic reasons. On his expansion from transportation to sustainability services, O’Connor explained how transit operations focused on initiatives that, “kind of dovetailed into fuel consumption and had an environmental aspect that I enjoyed.”
“It was always in the best interest of transit operation to consume less because ultimately you would lower your expenses,” O’Connor said. He explained that cost-cutting techniques expanded into newer technologies to lower fuel consumption and systems that lowered costs through more efficient initiatives, like operating routes differently and improving bus shelter facilities.
His expansion into sustainability, O’Connor admitted, ushered in a broader subject. The office is segmented into topics such as greenhouse gases, food, energy and, of course, transportation.
“There’s a lot of different trades, and it’s wonderful to have such in-depth conversations with people here,” O’Connor emphasized. “You’ll have a conversation with somebody and you won’t even be aware of their systems in place to heat or cool buildings, then you’ll take three steps the other way and you’ll be with a campus energy manager specifically into utility consumption.”
Perhaps because it combines both of his passions, the bike share program remains a favorite of O’Connor’s and highlights both a well-recognized and successful initiative from the office.
In development since 2011, Wolf Ride was revealed in spring this year and is designed to both decrease greenhouse gas emissions and increase general health on campus. It enables students, staff and visitors to hire and deposit bikes from solar-powered bike stations at the Student Activities Center, West Apartments I and South P Lot.
“It’s been a dream to bring as a kind of solution to our campus,” O’Connor says. “It’s a good example of where we are today; we implemented it and we’re growing it.”
On the harder aspects of his job, O’Connor talks about witnessing failed technologies.
For example, the office currently provides Global Electric Mobile cars to faculty members and previously tried to expand its selection with a batch of electric cars from a competitor. The batch proved to have relatively inefficient batteries that were “not as aggressively tested as the GEM car batteries.”
“We have had some mixed success; sometimes a battery is reliable and usable, and sometimes it isn’t,” O’Connor admitted. “Everything is different, and that’s one of the positives and negatives of working with new technologies.”
For someone dealing with this many projects, people, technologies and ideas, O’Connor remains humble and nonchalant about his personal life. He mentioned—briefly but warmly—caring for his newborn son at home in Suffolk County and playing hockey in college.
“I watch all four sports here, you know I follow them it’s definitely fun,” O’Connor said. “I like to run. I like to work out.
“It’s part of a process,” he said.