Actively Managing Campus Energy Use

The typical approach to managing energy use on a college campus is to address conservation projects or integrate renewable energy into the mix as opportunities arise. This often leads to a decentralized management system where different campus stakeholders are responsible for related projects and can mean excellent opportunities are overlooked or are not considered in the context of the big picture.

Williams College, a premier liberal arts college in western Massachusetts, made a decision to create a strategic energy management program in an effort to address this potential problem, and one of the key drivers in the decision to implement the program was the realization that even if Williams implemented every energy conservation project it had identified, it would not reach its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction targets. Many campuses, whether they have signed on to the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) or not, will find themselves in the same position. In order to achieve their goals, they must find creative ways to ensure that conservation and emissions reduction efforts are coordinated to leverage their maximum benefit.

Setting the Direction

Williams’ energy management program development was guided by a “directional statement,” which reads:
“Achieving Williams’ energy reduction and related sustainability goals through an energy management program integrating: (1) Conservation through proactive management of campus infrastructure, investments in efficient energy systems, and user-based behavioral change; and (2) Renewable energy technologies. To facilitate these goals it will continually explore opportunities to expand its use of advanced information and measurement technology, automation and control systems, smart energy procurement strategies, and community collaboration.”
This directional statement served as a mutual starting point for all members of the team, including campus staff and consultants involved in the process. This common ground is important because it helps ensure the team’s goals are aligned throughout the process.

Key Findings and Accomplishments

For Williams, the strategic approach led to a number of actionable steps, new tools, and opportunities for further investigation that will help the College bridge the gap between its goals and the conservation potential it had previously identified.

Energy Conservation
— As part of this project, Williams, in addition to its existing greenhouse gas reduction goal, set a target of consuming no more than 340,000M British Thermal Units (MMBTUs) per year by 2020 (normalized for weather conditions). This level of energy use would make Williams one of the most efficient campuses in its peer group.

In order to reach its target, Williams would need to implement a wide range of energy conservation projects across its campus. More than 600 possible projects had already been identified, but determining which ones to tackle first was proving to be difficult, and Williams needed a way to screen new opportunities to determine if they were worth pursuing.

To address these challenges, Williams and its partners developed a project prioritization tool that ranks projects based on a variety of criteria: GHG/energy reduction, ease of implementation, financial payback, curricular potential, operational advancement, and leadership potential. Weights were assigned to each criterion, and projects earn points for their potential in each and are then ordered by total score. The tool makes comparing very different projects, each with unique requirements and potential results, much easier, and provides a consensus-driven roadmap through increasingly complex decisions. It also allows stakeholders with different priorities to view how one ranking of projects may differ from another in order to facilitate discussion and mutual understanding of competing priorities. 

Community Engagement
— Because the energy use decisions made by the campus community comprise a huge factor in overall energy consumption, Williams knew that engaging with that community would be important to achieve its goals, and this engagement would align with its core educational mission.

The project team created a conceptual program that would allow Williams to broadcast actionable information so the whole campus can better understand and respond to operational opportunities, environmental conditions, and price signals, and reduce demand when necessary. This mechanism is crucial to the demand-side aspects of Williams’ strategic management plan and integrates directly with the energy procurement elements as well.

Renewable Energy Technologies
— To meet its 2020 GHG emissions goal, Williams must reduce and/or offset approximately 7,250 metric tonnes (MT) of carbon dioxide equivalent (eCO2) below its projected 2020 GHG emission levels. If Williams achieves its energy conservation target through conservation initiatives, it will still need to reduce annual GHG emissions by approximately 3,000 MT eCO2. This means that renewable energy is a necessary component of Williams’ plans to achieve its GHG reduction goal.

Williams investigated both large- and small-scale renewable energy projects and found that the opportunities offering the greatest potential GHG emissions reduction and financial return included on- or off-campus wind turbines, converting the campus central heating plant to burn biomass, and installing a cogeneration system in the heating plant. These projects provide opportunities to apply new technologies at a manageable scale in order to assess their impact on operations, energy consumption, and emissions.

Risk Management and Energy Procurement — Working with partner EnStrat Analytics, the Williams project team took a close look at the way the college purchases energy. By approaching energy procurement as a risk management exercise and creating well-defined protocols to identify and mitigate risk, Williams determined that it would be able to better manage its energy costs and emissions.

To support this approach, procurement and operations decisions would need to be data-driven and responsive to market price signals. Williams also found that longer-term energy supply contracts with extension options would reduce the “timing” risk (e.g., renewing a contract during a short-term price spike).

In the end, Williams implemented a sophisticated energy procurement strategy that included restructuring electricity purchase transactions and using a layered hedging approach. Through a new electricity solicitation process, Williams was able to apply these strategic approaches to better control the price and emissions risks associated with its energy use. This strategy makes Williams an active participant in the energy market by applying proactive energy management techniques. A very practical offshoot of the procurement strategy is an internal, price-driven demand response program that lets the College avoid purchasing some of the highest-priced electricity.

Energy Use Information Management Systems — Another key element of Williams’ overall strategic energy program is making better use of energy-use data. Williams already has a wealth of information about its energy use from energy bills, building meters, and heating plant, among other sources. While this information is organized, it is not well integrated, making it more difficult to analyze for trends and potential energy saving opportunities.

The team created the framework for a web-based energy information management system that automatically collects and maintains data on consumption of fuel, electricity, water, vehicle miles, and more. The system will need to generate monthly utility reports outlining energy usage, trends, and dollars spent, and provide forecasting tools. The vision is to provide automatic notifications to either Williams’ facilities personnel or the entire campus community based on triggers like day-ahead electricity pricing, changes in energy prices, weather, energy usage or high demand, or benchmark data.

Opportunities for Partnership and Collaboration — After being approached as part of this project, regional planners in nearby communities expressed interest in more aggressively evaluating opportunities to create partnerships between similar institutions that are working to address their future energy needs. This could include other colleges, hospitals, or municipalities in the region. There is potential to create an energy purchase consortium that would allow members to reduce energy costs through a group purchase agreement. Other opportunities include a community-sized system that would fully support Williams through recovered waste heat and electrical and thermal generation.

Summary

The opportunities Williams explored provide a strong model for other campuses. Campus infrastructure, geographic and meteorological factors, and other considerations will dictate the specific opportunities that a strategic energy management program will generate at any given campus, but the holistic approach will widen the field of possibilities significantly.

Diana Prideaux-Brune is associate vice president for Facilities at Williams College. She is one of the leaders of the College’s strategic energy management program. Mary House is Woodard & Curran’s Energy Efficiency and Sustainability Services leader. She works closely with clients to develop and implement energy management projects in a wide range of industries. For more information on the College and the firm visit www.williams.edu and www.woodardcurran.com

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