Some like it hot

How colleges are getting creative about energy supply to save money on heating and cooling and to boost building comfort for occupants

Campus facilities pros have long worked to lower energy costs while keeping building temps comfortable.

As they know, complaints about comfort can quickly clog facilities department phones and make work orders pile up. Compounding the issue: Everyone seems to have a different idea about the best temperature.

Studies show that men generally like buildings a few degrees cooler than women do. Also, many campus buildings are multi-use; with an age span of up to 50 years, some occupants dress in professional attire, while elsewhere in the same building students wear shorts and hoodies.

Add to the mix a campus dotted with buildings that range from 100 years old to brand new, and you have a never-ending juggling game. Here’s how you might play it to win.

When greenest is cheapest

An often overlooked cost-cutting method comes from the energy supply side. For some campuses, that means bulk purchasing or making energy from food waste, and for others, savings come from changing energy sources.

At Stanford University, data had shown that a heat-recovery process could handle two-thirds of its 155 buildings’ heating and cooling needs, says Joe Stagner, executive director of sustainability and energy management.

The plan involved locking into a 25-year price for solar that’s comparable to current electricity rates, about 5 cents per kilowatt hour. While the cost of market power will gradually increase, the price of solar power is fixed for that time frame.

A few of Stanford’s biggest cost savings came from its “energy optimization solutions,” a patented technology invented at the university and developed for commercial use by Johnson Controls. In March 2015, officials converted the campus from natural gas cogeneration (powered 100 percent by fossil fuel) to a low-temperature, solar-powered hot water distribution system, which carries the water through underground pipes.

A separate heat and power plant is cleaner than gas-powered cogeneration, Stagner says. Unless that plant is equipped with a carbon-capture and storage feature or fueled with sustainable biogas, a gas-fired steam boiler or hot water heater will emit greenhouse gases and other pollutants.

Because of the Stanford Energy System Innovations project, the university now uses renewable energy for heating and cooling. The system sucks waste heat from the cooling system via heat pumps and uses it for hot water. “It’s a lot cheaper to move energy around than to create it,” Stagner says. Stanford reuses more than 50 percent of its waste heat to meet more than 90 percent of its heating needs.

The university also contracted with SunPower, with headquarters in Silicon Valley, to build, own and operate a solar plant and to sell all the energy generated to Stanford. The solar company gets the federal tax breaks that would be unavailable to a nonprofit university, and Stanford pays off the company’s capital expense by buying the solar energy.

Starting this year, a total of at least 68 percent of the campus’ energy will come from renewable sources. More than half of its energy comes from the solar plant and the remaining is bought from the solar market. The university plans to be 75 percent solar powered by 2030.

Stanford had looked at several options, ranging in price from $1.2 billion to $1.6 billion to power the more than 8,000-acre campus. The cheapest was also the greenest, Stagner says, with projected savings at $400 million over 30 years.

Smart buildings

New monitoring software and building analytics help staff quickly detect and repair malfunctions before they become a bigger problem.

Say someone in a south-facing, corner office complains about being too hot. In the past, staff would have to go back to the campus chiller to see if the problem could be detected. But now, they can look at the “too hot” room through the control center, see if it’s measuring above the targeted temperature and determine if there’s a mechanical problem, says Joe Fullerton, energy and sustainability manager for San Mateo County Community College District in California.

Monitoring shortens complaint response and repair times. “Typically, the maintenance cycle is reactive,” says Fullerton. “The building analytics system is going to tell us something like, ‘Your economizer seems to be stuck open.’ Now we know before we get the complaint call. … Comfort is our No. 1 priority. If someone is cold or hot, that will have a tremendous impact on productivity.”

The district uses this system in its 82 buildings across three campuses to help change behaviors. Each of the campuses’ buildings has a dashboard with a screen that compares gas, water and energy use to other campus facilities.

San Mateo, like many colleges, uses this information as a teaching tool. For example, in the science lab, a screen at the building’s entrance gives reports on the amount of gas, water and energy the building is using and how that building compares to other campus buildings. Fullerton says he hopes faculty, staff and students will look at their consumption and try to change wasteful behaviors.

Stanford’s energy optimization software analyzes the next day’s weather forecast and how many people will be on campus, factoring in peak-rate and flat-rate times as well. Then it determines heating or cooling levels the buildings need.

Software is essential to lowering costs, says Chris Kopach, assistant vice president of facilities management at The University of Arizona. “It’s allowing us to be more efficient without having the occupancy less comfortable,” Kopach says.

Preventative maintenance, a standard best practice, is often not feasible with tight budgets. With the help of its building equipment analytics system, The University of Utah’s preventative maintenance program identifies problems as they happen so they can be repaired quickly, reducing energy and water waste and complaint calls. “Degraded or broken equipment almost always costs more in utilities,” says Energy Manager Sarah Boll.

Few campuses comply with industry standards that call for recommissioning buildings every five to 10 years. The university is testing the SkySpark system, made by SkyFoundry, to monitor a handful a buildings, and so far, so good.

“It identifies things that our technical shops can go fix,” Boll says. For example, email is generated to alert staff to a problem with a particular fan or water valve. “You have HVAC equipment degrading or breaking. Those issues can be time-consuming to identify on a campus where we have 300 buildings and only so many people,” she says.

In with the new

When the University of Louisville (Ky) builds a new building, the state does not increase the school’s operations budget to cover the costs of heating, cooling and maintenance. The institution has to find energy efficiencies to absorb the new facility into its spending plan.

In the past eight years, the university has opened 11 new LEED-certified buildings—which may cost more upfront, but pay themselves off and save money down the road.

Sustainable buildings often don’t just look better, but are more comfortable to work and study in, says Harlan Sands, the university’s chief financial officer. For example, the windows let in light but block out the kind of heat that can cause people to bake if sitting next to the glass.

Meanwhile, campus officials are working with Siemens to make older buildings more comfortable and efficient. The university has replaced old systems with more energy-efficient options across the campus, such as upgrading the lighting and weatherization systems. New automation systems use less energy, and steam boilers, chillers and attic insulation have been replaced.

The idea is to keep strategizing when it comes to keeping buildings comfortable—balancing demands for sustainability and cost cutting, while keeping buildings comfortable. As San Mateo’s Fullerton notes, “Comfort and energy are two separate issues you need to look at together.”


Theresa Sullivan Barger is a Connecticut-based writer.


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