The Future of Saving Energy

Much like the weather, everybody is talking about the price of fuel. Unlike the weather, this time people are doing something about it. Colleges are taking fuel-saving steps, building more efficient structures and infrastructures, and looking for alternative energy sources. Can any of these strategies help you face down your energy costs now and in the future?

Just how much energy prices have increased can boggle the mind.“Our energy expenses are up, just like everyone else’s,” says W.S. (Lanny) Joyce, a manager in the Department of Utilities and Energy Management for Cornell University in Ithaca, NY.“The cost of fueling our heating plant doubled over the last three years, and in the northeast, electricity costs shot up 20 to 25 percent over the same time period.”

Kristy Elmore, director of Higher Education Sales, Johnson Controls, Inc., reports even more astounding numbers. “Ashland University in Ohio has done a great job of energy management in the past, yet they are reporting utility costs up 60 percent in the last 12 months.”

Even schools that have a fixed energy contract, like the University of Missouri-Columbia, are bracing for the future. “We are projecting a flat energy budget for the next year because our coal contract is locked in until 2007,” tells Paul Hoemann, director of Energy Management for the campus facilities department. “After that, I expect a 20-percent jump in coal price, which translates to a six-percent increase in cost to the campus.”

Predicting energy use proves to be a dicey endeavor at best. “Weather plays such a huge role in consumption that it’s hard to get a good year-to-year use comparison,” explains Steven Heinz, president of Good Steward Software LLC. With weather in what appears to be an extreme cycle and fuel prices going nowhere but up, “energy awareness is at a high,” continues Heinz. “What once seemed like non-economical conservation strategies are looking better and better.”

Elmore agrees. “People are now looking for ‘high-hanging fruit,’” she says. “Schools traditionally had a ‘run to fail’ model; now it’s sexy to look at infrastructure — like the central utility plant — and talk renovation.”


One way schools have been saving energy in the past is with automated, or intelligent, buildings. Putting lighting and HVAC on computer-based direct digital control still leaves a level of comfort adjustments to the occupants, but ensures (theoretically) that those levels are attained using the least amount of power. “We let users set temperatures between 70 and 76 degrees, and then the system either cools or heats as appropriate,” explains Paul Coleman, manager of Energy Conservation, University of Missouri-Columbia.

Activated by motion sensors, intelligent interiors can keep occupants at comfortable temperature and lighting levels and then ramp down when no one is around. Even hallways are getting the automated treatment. “Corridors are a big part of a school’s lighting load,” says Coleman, pointing to their generous size to handle throngs of students. “To maximize efficiency and still allow for safety, the halls are set at a constant five-percent lighting level and immediately ramp up fully when a person enters the space. This is just as secure as the old method of leaving every fourth or eighth light on but more energy-efficient.”

Residence halls and classrooms use plenty of power, but no space eats as much energy as labs. “Our research facilities use one-half of our total energy output,” quotes Joyce. Part of that reason is labs need lots of air changes with 100 percent outside air. In comparison, large auditoriums or conference rooms have carbon dioxide monitors that allow air to safely and economically re-circulate within a given CO2 set point. Labs need outside air and “fresh air changes are huge money,” continues Joyce. Automation helps reign in those costs. “A lab may need six air changes per minute when occupied. However, if no one is around, three or four changes a minute may be enough,” says Coleman. Fume hoods with proximity sensors ensure that researchers are safe while working. When they step away, the hoods vent slower to save energy.

While automation allows for greater energy-use control, facility managers should not rest on their electronic laurels just yet. All that automation generates a huge amount of data that can be hard to track and understand. “We have 150 major buildings on campus with five to seven air handlers each and 50 to 70 zones per hander,” says Joyce. “Optimizing all of that data can be daunting.”

Also, because a zone is set at a certain temperature, a breakdown can be expensive. “We were surprised to find that we had a building where a large percentage of reheat control valves had failed,” recalls Joyce. “As a result, we were cooling and heating the space simultaneously. That is the bane of every energy managers’ existence.”

Even something as innocuous as an open window can cause problems. “About one-third of our buildings still have operable windows, and they can be energy wasters,” reports Hoemann. “As a result, most of our new buildings have inoperable windows.”

Another Way?

Automated buildings undoubtedly save energy, but that power is still coming from the usual sources. Some schools, however, are branching out and saying yes to solar, wind and other alternative energies. “There is great interest in renewable energy today,” reports Elmore. For instance, biomass projects let utility plants burn waste products that are abundant and readably accessible, like corn or chicken droppings, for power. “The University of South Carolina just installed a biomass project that burns wood chips,” says Elmore.

If your school is located next to a 425-ft.-deep glacial body of water and is dedicated to energy conservation, perhaps you too can pursue lake-source cooling. Cornell, after an arduous process that involved $5 million in preliminary work and required 18 major permit approvals, now taps the 2.5 trillion gallons of water in Cayuga Lake to cool their school.

“This project affords us an 87 percent reduction in energy use to cool our buildings,” reports Joyce. “Plus, we now are free from CFC chillers.” A rare technology (only the cities of Toronto and Stockholm possess similar systems), the lake-source cooling project did not come cheap. The $58-million total cost is two times as high as conventional chilling systems. However, Cornell is looking at the project with the long term in mind. “It’s designed to last 100 years instead of the traditional 30 to 40,” reports Joyce. “We expect payback from the system in 10 to 13 years.” While this may represent an extreme commitment to renewable energy sources, what are becoming more common are the longer payback expectations. “We are seeing more and more schools committing to 20-year paybacks instead of the usual five to 10,” reports Elmore. She credits this trend to more and more college financial officers coming from corporate America, where sustainability and life-cycle cost analysis are more common. “Colleges are looking beyond first costs now,” Elmore continues. “They are more willing to pay more up front for energy efficient technologies.”

And that’s sensible resource management.

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