Seeking a Smaller Footprint
Forward-thinking campus leaders pair new technologies with adjustments in human behaviors to step away from energy waste toward a carbon-neutral future.
By Karla Hignite
According to U.S. Department of Energy figures, the built environment accounts for nearly 40 percent of all energy consumed in the United States and churns out roughly the same percentage in total greenhouse gas emissions. Today's wave of green development offers much greater resource efficiency, and there is no doubt that this new breed of building is cropping up on college and university campuses across the nation. The 2007 McGraw-Hill Construction Green Building SmartMarket Report for the education sector indicates that education construction projects—the second largest market sector after government facilities—comprise approximately 20 percent of all projects that are Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)–certified. There are expectations that the education sector will soon move into the top spot.
Yet, any new construction or expansion still adds to an institution's physical and carbon footprint. And most campuses must continue to chip away at hefty deferred maintenance logs for older facilities that include replacing inefficient heating and cooling systems and low-grade windows. Along with increases to total infrastructure square footage, energy-intensive research and the explosion of computers and electronic equipment that students have been bringing with them during the past decade contribute further to higher levels of overall energy consumption.
Adding to concerns about rising utility costs associated with this expanding energy load is a second dilemma: Growing awareness about climate change and the need to collectively reduce greenhouse gases is pushing institutions to consider how to decrease their carbon emissions. More than 500 U.S. higher education presidents have signed on to the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment to take actions that will move their campuses toward carbon neutrality (see "Resources" sidebar).
To accomplish this ambitious goal, institutions must employ a multipronged strategy. In conjunction with moving toward the purchase and generation of renewable and carbon-neutral energy sources, the commitment places significant focus on reducing energy use as much as possible. "While conservation on its own won't allow institutions to achieve carbon neutrality, without a concerted effort toward reducing consumption and improving efficiency, institutions will have a tough time eliminating reliance on fossil fuels and won't maximize the benefits of pursuing alternative energy sources," says Simpson. "To the extent that you can raise efficiency, you lower cost pressures in other areas of energy transition such as green power purchasing and carbon offsetting."
This is especially true for campuses that are still reliant on burning coal, the most carbon-intensive fuel, notes Simpson. "For those institutions, every coal-fired BTU or kilowatt hour conserved goes beyond pure dollar savings because it has a disproportionately positive effect on climate and an institution's efforts to reduce its carbon footprint."
The good news is that a new generation of technologies and products is providing significant opportunities for energy and financial savings and for reducing harmful emissions. Some have a quick return on investment. Ultimately, however, it can be argued that real strides in conservation will come only when the promise of technology is coupled with adjustments to human attitudes and behaviors. This article highlights how several institutions are employing these strategies to gain control of their energy consumption.
The Zero-Carbon Diet
Through concerted efforts to enhance energy efficiency, the University of California San Diego has successfully reduced its per-square-foot energy costs. The problem is that the institution's overall energy load continues to rise. Significant growth in enrollments and facilities expansion during the past decade combined with the kinds of energy-intensive research conducted by a major university make it increasingly difficult to downsize energy consumption. "At any given time we have about $1 billion in some phase of construction. Right now that includes a major housing project to deliver 2,000 beds by 2011," says Steven Relyea, vice chancellor, business affairs.
While UC San Diego is a big energy consumer, it takes its carbon footprint seriously. From a historical standpoint, it has to, says Relyea. After all, it was the pioneering research of Charles David Keeling of UC San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography that alerted the world to the human contribution to climate change and global warming, explains Relyea. "We believe we are charged with this legacy of having identified a very serious problem, and that we now must identify solutions."
Because the issue of climate change is so big and so important, it can't be solved through any single approach, says Relyea. The university is in the process of installing more than one megawatt of high-efficiency solar power modules on campus rooftops. In other plans, a wastewater treatment plant eight miles from campus is flaring methane gas that the university plans to capture to power two hydrogen fuel cells. These cells will provide another 2.4 megawatts of clean power. During the past seven years, the university has invested $60 million into carbon-reduction retrofit projects of existing facilities, including fume hood replacements, HVAC systems, and lighting for its most energy-intensive buildings. These improvements have reduced carbon outputs by another 20 percent, says Relyea.
UC San Diego's cogeneration plant already saves the institution approximately $8 million annually in energy costs and reduces its carbon emissions by 15 percent. Five years ago the university's cogeneration power plant carried 92 percent of the institution's power load. Currently that level is between 80 to 85 percent, though by adding the solar and hydrogen fuel cell power, and increasing the power plant's capacity, Relyea sees the institution's goal of becoming energy independent within reach. In fact, he envisions soon having the capacity to provide energy back to the local community if needed.
That capability was recently tested during the height of the October 2007 wildfires in southern California. San Diego Gas and Electric called UC San Diego to request its help in providing campus power to the grid. The university quickly gathered the talent of staff and its best engineers to determine how to bring its grid-provided power to zero and supply three megawatts back to the power grid, recounts Relyea.
Across the country, under quite different climate conditions, the University of New Hampshire, Durham, is accustomed to looking for ways to save on energy costs associated with a prolonged winter heating season. UNH has during the past 10 years nearly eliminated incandescent lighting, replaced building control systems, purchased high-efficiency motors, and established policies to procure Energy Star–rated equipment whenever possible. Now UNH is launching the next level of energy efficiency, and possibly, energy independence.
Earlier this decade the University System of New Hampshire trustees approved a $28 million cogeneration plant to provide combined electric power and heat. This set the stage for the university's $47 million landfill gas project to tap a ready supply of methane as the university's primary energy source to fuel its cogeneration plant. "Our goal is to have everything in place by this next heating season," says Paul Chamberlin, assistant vice president for energy and campus development. "By current estimates, we anticipate generating 80 to 85 percent of our campus energy needs from this renewable source."
UNH is self-financing the landfill gas project over a 10-year period with taxable bonds. "Our current modeling shows that the gas should be available for 20 years, and if the landfill continues to grow in acreage, we could benefit for 30 or 40 years," explains Dick Cannon, vice president for finance and administration. "With the 10-year payoff, we deliberately loaded all of the capital costs on the short run in hopes that this will become a long-term beneficial investment for the campus."
Cannon notes that the university's initial investment in the cogeneration plant was intentional and instrumental. "In the future, there may be periods when we won't be able to use on campus all the energy we can make available. In those instances, we could sell our excess back to the grid so that all the gas can be used," says Cannon. Greater efficiencies gained through future conservation projects will further enhance the possibility of having excess energy available to sell, he adds.
While it all sounds good now, it took UNH 36 months to fully staff and evaluate the project and prepare a solid analysis and proposal for trustee consideration. This complex project entails building a gas processing plant, laying a 12-mile underground pipeline, and incorporating an additional turbine to fully utilize the available gas. "It's important to look at energy systemically in terms of how various projects will fit together to optimize efficiency," says Cannon. For UNH, the fact that one of the largest landfills in the state is essentially next door makes such a comprehensive project feasible. Cannon admits that not every institution has the same energy supplies at its disposal. The point, he says, is to consider what circumstances are possible for your campus and to think beyond current opportunities.
To assume a more comprehensive approach to tackling resource efficiency, a growing number of institutions are entering into performance contracts with energy services companies. Services may include help with establishing baseline building-specific measurements of electric, gas, and water consumption and associated greenhouse gas emissions; procuring funding and competitive utility prices; and conducting assessments with regard to building components and system modifications.
More often these contracts are likely to bundle projects such as equipment upgrades, lighting retrofits, and the addition of one or more renewable energy sources such as wind turbines, solar arrays, or biomass plants, says Jim Simpson, director of higher education for Johnson Controls, Inc. Depending on what an institution has already done to improve efficiency, it's not unrealistic for the average college campus to achieve a 20-percentreduction in energy consumption through some combination of projects, says Simpson. Not only does this combined approach help maximize efficiency gains, but it also helps counterbalance projects having a longer financial payback with those that have a much shorter return on investment, such as lighting retrofits.
Ashland University in Ohio has pursued energy savings for more than a decade through performance contracting. The institution's latest effort is investing $2.3 million to be financed over the next 10 years and paid back in part with energy savings. Those projected savings are estimated at $1.17 million over the next decade, according to Patrick Ewing, Ashland's physical plant director. Every bit of savings helps. Within the past five years, Ashland has added 235,000 square feet of facilities space to its campus. That growth accounts for approximately 15 percent of the total campus infrastructure and has come with significant increases in energy consumption and utility costs, notes Ewing.
The university's new student recreation center and natatorium has had the biggest impact due to its long operation hours, pool environment, large open areas, and high air-exchange requirements. "Knowing the implications of higher energy consumption associated with the center, building systems were designed for maximum efficiency and we factored in life-cycle costs in addition to equipment first costs," says Ewing. One specific measure taken was to install a heat recovery unit on the pool exhaust air handler, notes Ewing. "With the high humidity and exhaust volumes, we are able to recapture some of the heat energy and put it back into the system."
Big Things First
As the second-largest two-year institution in Florida, Valencia Community College, Orlando, serves approximately 60,000 students spread across five campuses. During the past five years, enrollment has grown by approximately 8 percent, and the college has added another 177,000 square feet to its total 1.7 million square feet of facilities space. From 2004 to 2007, Valencia witnessed growth in another area—an alarming 40-percent increase in utilities costs on average for all campuses. One campus showed a 70-percent spike, says Winsome Bennett, Valencia's energy conservation manager. In part, the rapid rise was exacerbated by an average 33-percent electric utility rate hike across Florida in 2005.
While institution staff had previously engaged in minor retrofits in-house to attempt modest savings without a significant capital outlay, all involved soon realized there was no hope for these small-scale projects to have a real effect, says Bennett. "The impact on our operating budget convinced us that we had to get control of our energy costs." As its first step, the college contracted for an audit. While the audit revealed a range of potential projects, Valencia's leaders decided to tackle its biggest problems first.
The first phase of the two-phase proj-ect is focused on Valencia's west campus, where an existing aging chiller plant is being rebuilt and expanded to bring all buildings under one central system. This process also includes removing the centralized boiler, because of its age and the decaying condition of underground pipe, and instead installing point-of-service boilers in required buildings. This same process will prove a bit more complex on Valencia's east campus, which currently has eight separate air-cooled chiller loops. A new water-cooled central plant will eliminate the smaller loops and tie all systems together, explains Bennett. The existing building controls are a mix of pneumatic and older, multiple-vender direct digital systems. Having one system will also prove a welcome change from a controls standpoint because monitoring across all buildings will be uniform. Finally, Valencia's Criminal Justice Institute, a fairly new campus, is targeted for incorporating a thermal energy storage system to shift energy supply based on peak and off-peak demand.
The $13.5 million performance contract with guaranteed savings to the institution also includes lighting and electrical systems upgrades for all campuses. Projected savings of $900,000 per year are averaged over a 20-year period. With $7.5 million provided by the state, the college is funding the remainder through internal accounts. Eventually, the savings that are realized will flow directly back to the college's operating budget, notes Bennett.
Since the early 1990s, Assumption College,Worcester, Massachusetts, has taken advantage of several offers by its local electric utility provider to subsidize efficiency measures with lighting retrofits. Consultation with an energy services company in 2004 identified $880,000 in recommended projects that the college undertook the following year to improve energy and water consumption. Initiatives included improved lighting campuswide, a new higher-efficiency mechanical system for Assumption's dining hall, and a mechanical system upgrade for the library with digital controls and variable sensors that respond to energy load demand.
More than $150,000 in subsidies helped finance these improvements, notes Jerome Barilla, Assumption's director of business services, facilities planning, and construction. Currently the college is eyeing requirements to see if it might be eligible to tap the $65 million in funding the state's governor has set aside for solar energy projects.
With more than half its buildings in excess of 50 years old, Assumption's deferred maintenance log gets longer each year. Most projects at the top of the priority list are those with potential for energy savings, says Barilla. "With the rising cost of utilities, it's tough to push energy costs down, but if we can moderate increases, that's a big help," adds Christian McCarthy, executive vice president for administration and finance and treasurer. Sometimes that happens one pane at a time. Each summer since 2004, the college has targeted a different building for swapping original windows with double-glazed, energy-efficient replacements.
The combination of significant targeted spending and steady ongoing efficiency improvements has proven beneficial for Assumption. "There's never a bad time to invest in energy projects—though sometimes you can get particularly lucky," notes McCarthy. He thought the gross outlay of expenditures the college made in 2005 for its various improvements held an attractive payback then. "Little did we know that the dramatic energy rate increases that have since occurred would essentially chop our payback in half."
Through a host of project improvements over the years, the UB campus in New York is 30 percent more efficient today in its use of energy, a laudable achievement. Yet, a greater collective understanding about energy consumption and climate change underscores that everything done in the past is simply not enough, says Walter Simpson. "To really achieve significant reductions, we need to go back to all the buildings that have previously been retrofitted and take measures that have much longer paybacks." That will require digging deep into the base load of buildings that have been designed, at least from a structural standpoint, to last 100 years or more, says Simpson.
So what is an acceptable payback for efficiency and conservation measures? Previous thinking was no more than five years, though today more are comfortable with 10-year paybacks, says Simpson. He notes that at a recent conference of State University of New York campuses, some have started talking about paybacks that go out 20 years. "We're beginning to realize that efforts to make significant cuts in energy use must go deep enough to make a lasting difference."
Simpson regrets that decisions to fund energy conservation programs are typically based on projected length of payback instead of life-cycle costs and benefits and the critical need to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. "You can't do this on the cheap or focus only on fast payback measures. Serious human and financial resources are required to make campus conservation programs fully effective," says Simpson. "You have to be interested in the high-hanging fruit as well as what's staring you in the face. Otherwise, you will always have energy-wasteful 100-year-old buildings that have energy conservation opportunities that are never exploited."
Sometimes the big projects may require a creative financing approach, adds Relyea. UC San Diego isn't putting one dime toward its multimillion-dollar solar project. In fact, it's leasing its rooftops to a private company that is building, financing, and maintaining the system, then selling the energy back to the institution. The company is eligible for a tax credit that is not available to the university as a nonprofit institution, explains Relyea, who is convinced that many similar mutually beneficial relationships are in store for the future.
One hopeful sign for Simpson is the sustainability staff positions being added each week to college and university campus rosters. Yet, without a critical mass of people and priority funding to adequately address an institution's energy challenges or other sustainability-related issues, little progress can be made in moving institutions quickly in the right direction. He points to Harvard's Green Campus Initiative as one innovative model for funding and staffing a campuswide sustainability focus (see sidebar, "On-Campus Enterprise").
The Larger Debate
Al Allen, president of education facilities for Sodexo, hears a different urgency these days in his conversations with college and university leaders about energy efficiency and conservation. Thoughts are focused not only on saving on utility costs and reducing carbon emissions, but also on the educational mission of institutions to train and equip the future workforce, which will inevitably include more green-collar jobs. He sees the convergence of three key components that will continue to drive higher education's focus on sustainability for the foreseeable future: the economic necessity brought on by soaring energy costs, the political realities of dependence on fossil fuels, and the initiative to show environmental leadership.
Ari Kobb likewise notices a difference in perception regarding conservation efforts. "Unlike a generation ago when conservation was primarily associated with a sense of sacrifice, today's efforts focus on new ways of thinking and on ingenuity," says Kobb, senior marketing manager of energy and environmental solutions for Siemens Building Technologies. He believes that higher education is best suited to take a leading role in advancing society's understanding about energy challenges and solutions. Opportunities exist across the board for higher education to show leadership—from community college programs that train workers to participate in green building design and construction to research university initiatives that focus on creating sophisticated energy sources and solutions.
UC San Diego has stepped up to the plate. "Our goal has always been to become an early adopter of tools and technologies in this area so that we can lead by example with real-world solutions," says Relyea. To hone its expertise, the university has joined a variety of partnerships to gain and share knowledge about energy efficiency and carbon neutrality. UC San Diego is the sole university member of the Green Grid, a global consortium of companies and organizations focused on establishing industry best practices and metrics to improve operational and energy efficiency in data and computing centers. For its part, the university is beta testing two modular data centers that are about the size of cargo ship containers, notes Relyea. The portable "box" buildings will be monitored to try to develop useful metrics for energy efficiency in computing.
Likewise, the university's recent 80,000-square-foot expansion of its supercomputer data center incorporates a number of energy-saving designs and practices. For instance, the institution is tapping the advantage of its location to naturally ventilate the center's expansion. Special filters that remove salt from the air allow for open windows to draw from the cool ocean breezes. Using natural displacement as opposed to conventional air conditioning reduces energy by about 40 percent and saves about $175,000 on an annual basis for this one data center, says Relyea. The university is now applying this energy-saving expertise to other projects on campus.
UC San Diego is also one of fewer than a dozen higher education institutions that have so far joined the Chicago Climate Exchange, North America's only voluntary, legally binding trading system to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. Members commit to annual emissions reduction targets and can either sell or bank surplus allowances or agree to purchase carbon offsets if they emit above target levels. In its own state, UC San Diego was a founding member of the California Climate Action Registry. The registry's aim is to develop and promote credible, accurate, and consistent greenhouse gas reporting standards and to provide tools to help organizations measure, monitor, and report their emissions.
"As a research institution, we feel we have an obligation to partner locally, nationally, and globally to develop solutions within our own community as well as new tools and approaches that we can migrate to other places throughout the world," says Relyea. Another project in preliminary stages of study is a proposal to access the university's deepwater trench to take water from the ocean to help cool university facilities. Slightly warmer water would be released back into the ocean. "Obviously we need to study this very carefully for any adverse impacts to sea life," notes Relyea. He estimates that if the project goes forward, it could save significant energy resources and further reduce UC San Diego's carbon emissions while also saving up to 100 million gallons of freshwater annually.
"Ultimately, metrics are key. If you aren't measuring something, you're not going to do the best job in making the right changes," says Relyea. "That's as true for energy management as it is for customer and employee satisfaction." To maintain some level of awareness throughout such a large enterprise, Relyea tracks energy consumption by area and shares the information with the institution's vice chancellors. The university is also working on more refined metrics on a per-building basis and would eventually like to implement an energy management system that can monitor resource flows by floor or even by room, says Relyea.
Next on Chamberlin's agenda is to implement enhanced metering technology in all UNH facilities to provide real-time data and improve his staff's capability to analyze consumption patterns that seem out of line. Gaining greater control over temperature settings, among other controls, should allow UNH to further enhance energy savings. However, one thing Chamberlin is not willing to sacrifice for the sake of greater efficiency is occupant safety or comfort. "I could save a lot of money by keeping people cold, but that's not my objective."
In fact, understanding the human dimension of conservation has been the focus of various research efforts (see sidebar, "The Human Imperative"). If you walk into a student dormitory on Ohio's Oberlin College campus, you might be greeted by a wall-mounted "energy orb" that glows different colors based on the building's current electricity use. According to John Petersen, chair of Oberlin's environmental studies program and director of research at Lucid Design Group, this ambient feedback is the latest in a series of sophisticated display technologies researchers are employing to study the link between real-time data and the response by consumers—in this case, Oberlin's students.
To better understand this connection, Oberlin launched its annual dorm energy competition in 2005. The goal: to see which dorm could reduce its electric and water use by the largest percentage during a two-week period. Researchers first established a baseline by tracking consumption for a three-week period. During this time they did no advertising and made no data public. For the next two-week period of competition, the researchers employed various measures to alter the level and frequency of feedback provided, with some dorms receiving continuous feedback about their performance, while others received feedback only once after the first week and again at the end of the competition.
All results were accessible via Oberlin's campus resource monitoring system Web site. On average, dorms reduced electricity consumption by 32 percent during the competition period. The two dorms that had lobby monitors tracking real-time consumption achieved an astounding 56 percent reduction in their electricity use, notes Petersen.
Finally, during a two-week post-competition period, researchers gathered feedback from students about the conservation strategies they used, their interest in having feedback data, and whether they planned to continue conservation measures taken during the competition. Of those who participated in the post-competition survey, 45 percent said that having real-time data regarding resource use within their dorms would motivate them to conserve resources. Since the 2005 study, Oberlin has made real-time feedback available to 80 percent of its dormitory residents.
Petersen acknowledges that the high levels of energy reduction achieved during Oberlin's first and subsequent dorm competitions likely aren't sustainable. Yet, the fact that some were able to cut their resource use in half proves there may be significant "slush" in human consumption, says Petersen. "At the very least, it shows that most of us could consume a lot less." However, Petersen concedes that behavior modification is not something many of us typically want to address. "It's akin to buying a more efficient car and feeling we've done our part, without also trying to reduce the number of miles we drive."
Petersen believes that while ongoing real-time feedback about consumption patterns is useful, it is not necessary. Short-term exposure may be enough to instill lasting, beneficial changes in behavior, he notes. For instance, people who drive automobiles with gauges displaying real-time miles per gallon may teach themselves to drive more efficiently and then carry this behavior over when they drive other vehicles without these gauges.
Technology and People
For eight years Oberlin has focused on developing feedback systems that translate technical data on the environmental performance of buildings into a form that is easily accessible to a nontechnical building occupant. This focus actually began with the monitoring system developed for the college's Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies. By way of a large plasma display and kiosk in the center's atrium, visitors can view flows of energy and water in real time transmitted by more than 150 sensors installed throughout the building and external landscape. Flip on a light switch, change the thermostat, or drink from a water fountain and you can witness the immediate impact of these actions on screen.
As Petersen explains, this kind of sociotechnical feedback can teach users how to conserve through trial and error. Whereas automated building control systems can regulate building functions with little or no human input, Oberlin is attempting to engage building users, educate them about energy consumption, and empower them to respond with behaviors that positively affect building performance.
Smart-building technology alone can't solve environmental problems, argues Petersen. Shifting resource decision making to an automated system, no matter how smart it is, doesn't foster the change necessary to create a culture of environmental stewardship where real and long-lasting transformation can occur, he adds. Technologies in buildings that allow occupants to be passive in resource decision making also don't solve the inefficiency of numerous older structures present on college and university campuses, he says.
"Engineering and design decisions that increase efficiency in the background are laudable. However, a myopic focus on engineering our way out of environmental problems through design and smart technology will only get us partway to where we want to go and will miss valuable opportunities to transform the thought and behavior of building occupants," argues Petersen. The idea is to pair technology with human behavior—to get people thinking and behaving differently, he says. "The biggest nut to crack with regard to energy consumption is coming to the realization that even if we achieve the ultimate in efficient building technologies, we still need for people to live different lives."
Two things are clear: First, there is plenty of room to advance as a nation toward more responsible use of increasingly cleaner energy resources, and higher education can help lead the way. And second, any lasting and significant change will require both human participation and continued technological innovation—and a lot more word of mouth.
KARLA HIGNITE, Kaiserslautern, Germany, is a contributing editor for Business Officer.
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