Energy synergy in higher education

How higher ed institutions are adopting energy management initiatives for energy savings

Conservation on campus is about saving money and electricity at a time of lagging state funding and soaring global demand for power. Worldwide energy use is slated to jump 56 percent by 2040, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Meanwhile, students and faculty are increasingly well-versed in energy use and are demanding sustainable solutions.

Colleges with successful energy sustainability programs have combined mechanical improvements with campaigns to get their communities to adopt new behaviors. And these institutions have created energy-saving strategies that cover entire campuses rather than individual buildings. Here are some actions being taken that involve cutting energy use—and also reaping rewards of financial savings, increased safety and community buy-in.

Turn on the bright lights

According to the Department of Energy, lighting consumes 60 percent of the energy used in the United States. California State University, Fullerton reduced energy costs and increased safety through a new lighting program created in tandem with vendor Exergy Controls, about five years ago when LED technology was just beginning to gain attention.

“We set out to improve energy usage, control, maintenance and longevity,” says Doug Kind, manager of engineering and sustainability at the university.

Exergy created a uniform network across campus, installing controllers in 700 light fixtures. These lights are powered by a single outdoor wireless system, allowing staff to control lighting by area. In addition, fixtures are automatically dimmed or brightened in response to shifting natural light.

The initial investment (including removal of old exterior lighting, changing to 70-watt LED fixtures, adding controls and minor relamping inside buildings) was $2 million. Lighting upgrades then expanded into campus parking structures, costing at least $1 million more. But efforts resulted in a 70 percent energy savings, an estimated 3.3 million kilowatt hours and $445,000 annually.

Three bright ideas on smart energy management

  1. Find out what you are up against. “Measure your current usage on all areas of campus and in specific buildings. Not all campuses have individual meters on buildings, but you need granularity at building level to find out where non-performing buildings are. It’s also important to analyze types of [HVAC] controls in the facility, whether it’s zoned by floor or by room,” says Rick Krysiack, director of physical plant services at Oklahoma State University.
  2. Avoid DIY on projects. “Often, somebody in my position doesn’t want to admit they don’t always know the answer or the best way to tackle it,” says Jason Hartley, executive director of facilities management for the University of North Texas Health Science Center. The way he sees it, smart managers utilize the experts.
  3. (Seriously) consider new hires. “Invest in an energy manager, or two or three. We have five on campus, who cover 10 million square feet of space. It’s a full-time job to monitor usage on a monthly basis and continue to look for opportunities,” says Krysiack.

Campus safety has also improved. “Lamps are no longer constantly burning out and creating dark zones,” says Kind.

Don’t light empty spaces

When assessing where energy use can be cut, the answer is often hidden in the answer to this obvious question: What rooms are unoccupied and when? This type of energy planning becomes a low-hanging fruit when building occupation times on campus are carefully and continuously monitored (since most college campuses are in a constant state of population flux).

Before Oklahoma State University launched its energy-saving program, each of its colleges hosted its own summer classes. This often resulted in whole buildings being cooled for only two or three classes, says Rick Krysiack, director of physical plant services. So summer classes were consolidated into a single building.

The facility occupancy focus unearthed areas for improvement where change had been deemed impossible. The campus library ran its HVAC constantly in order to maintain temperature and humidity control requirements for documents it housed. But Krysiack says he still saw an opportunity.

“Faculty were very skeptical that we could turn equipment off at night [and keep the documents safe], but in the end, we were able to.” To prove it, his team placed data logger devices at strategic locations throughout the library and measured temperature and humidity levels over a period of time.

Valencia College in Florida kicked off an energy-saving program with Cenergistic almost three years ago and continues to find success by focusing on building occupancy. Valencia also has installed occupancy sensors and low-flow mechanisms on urinals and sinks, as well as a reporting system that reminds faculty to keep buildings functioning at standard levels.

“Unless you’re structured to undo changes that you do for special events, you end up with buildings and systems no longer operating at high speed,” says Allen Bottorff, the college’s vice president of facilities. The reporting system helps ensure that extra lighting, heating or cooling efforts are only applied when needed.

Abilene Christian University in Texas adjusts HVAC run times to match building occupancy. An energy specialist was hired to continuously audit operations, says Corey Ruff, executive director of facilities and campus management. “These audits provide information to help us better schedule HVAC and lighting to meet the needs of campus.”

Empower through energy savings

Perhaps most imperative in efforts to save energy are the people who live, study and work on campus. Hinds Community College in Mississippi first focused on staff habits. Hinds has 12,000 students on six campuses, along with 5,000 personnel who have office computers and peripheral machines.

“We began by asking staff to make sure lights, computers, monitors and printers were turned off when not in use,” says Jason Pope, director of sustainability. “We simply explained the costs. Making a presence and checking behind folks is critical to maintaining this type of program as well. Accountability is key.”

Encouraging consciousness of energy use goes beyond flicking a switch at Hinds. Students are encouraged to report any misuse of energy they spot on campus, including lights that do not turn off, parking lot lights on during the day, sport field lights, classroom lights left on, water leaks and broken sprinkler heads. Through a combination of these and other actions, the Mississippi college is now approaching $8 million in energy savings since 2008.

At Valencia, simplifying control systems to a single type and brand resulted in more than just cost savings.

“One of the unintended consequences was an increase in morale. Our HV and AC techs, previously used to learning so many different control systems, transitioned from jacks-of-all-trades to masters of one language,” says Bottorff. “We also give our techs a voice in the process about which system we go with. This helps to create true ownership.”

Oklahoma State successfully integrated its energy program into student life by conducting energy savings orientations in residence halls and funding an energy sustainability contest for students. Each year, students are invited to submit presentations on energy savings, and the university awards up to $10,000 to bring these sustainability programs to campus.

Look forward

In the swiftly changing landscape of energy sustainability, there remain areas that continue to present challenges for higher education administrators. “Currently our largest energy challenge is with equipment that is way beyond it’s expected life cycle,” says Ruff of Abilene Christian. “We’re exploring several options that will help us fund major equipment upgrades in the future.”

At Cal State, Fullerton, Kind and his team continue to wait for an HVAC solution equivocal to LED. “The tech on the heating and cooling side is not moving as fast as lighting. Hopefully within the next 10 to 15 years there is a miracle equivalent to LED lighting,” he says.

Stefanie Botelho is newsletter editor at UB.


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