It’s Payback Time

Being energy efficient has a lot going for it. Students and faculty appreciate the comfortable environments. Staff members enjoy maintaining and servicing an intelligently controlled building. And everyone can feel good about contributing to a healthy, green future. But at what cost? There is plenty of whizz-bang technology that looks great… until you crunch the numbers. Is a 20-year return on investment too long to wait? Or is the alternative too expensive?

“There has to be a hierarchy of needs,” says Mike DeNamur, vice president, marketing and sales, Automated Logic Corporation. “Some schools are in ‘food and shelter’ mode with lots of other maintenance issues taking priority, while others have made a focused commitment to energy efficient projects.” His colleague, Bill Harris, general manager, Automated Logic Corporation Massachusetts, agrees. “So many public schools have an enormous pool of deferred maintenance projects backed up that they can’t even think about this,” he says. “Others may be weighing what kind of facility to build: something with all of the latest green features or a fantastic new science building that will attract top talent and grants.”

The conundrum reveals itself further when looking at the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC). While there are around 4,000 institutions of higher learning in the U.S., to date only 665 have signed on to this commitment to become carbon neutral. But the ACUPCC realizes the importance of a long-term investment. “While higher education only represents about two to three percent of the country’s carbon footprint, it represents 100 percent of the ‘education footprint,’ in that our institutions teach not only our college students, but also the teachers who need to be equipped with the knowledge and skills to adequately prepare our K–12 students for the new challenges of the 21st century,” according to the ACUPCC’s website.

Those incoming students are learning the lesson. Many come to college with an awareness of LEED ratings and other green initiatives. And schools are picking up the gauntlet. “We have a responsibility to educate and do what’s right,” says Judy Mitchell, vice president of administrative services, Jolliet Junior College (one of the ACUPCC signatories), Joliet, IL. “And that means making decisions that benefit our students and the environment.”

As part of a $220M master plan aimed at transforming the College’s approach to sustainability and efficiency, Joliet Junior College (JJC) just completed a 42,500-sq.-ft. Facility Services Building that has met LEED Gold. Sustainable elements of the building include geothermal HVAC; reflective roof surfaces; solar heat collectors; LED lighting; motion sensors for lighting; and operable, high-efficiency windows. Each component was carefully considered before it was installed.

 “We have a solid, institutional commitment to sustainability that we balance with what is fiscally responsible,” says Pat Van Duyne, JJC’s director of facilities. With that comes a metric. “Fifteen years is a good payback time, but 20 years was considered acceptable because of the educational opportunities. Anything over 20 years, however, becomes difficult to justify.” Because of this formula photovoltaic arrays, which Van Duyne estimates to have over a 30-year payback, were, “untouchable. We put in a few to show what can be done with this technology, but a full array was out of our reach,” he continues. Other technologies, like geothermal, which Van Duyne estimates has a 15-year payback, made the cut. “We have a responsibility to the budget but we also signed contracts for sustainability. It’s a constant balancing act.”

Sometimes the balancing act can get complicated. “If you do all of the ‘low-hanging fruit’ retrofit projects first, it leaves you with some big-ticket items in the hopper,” explains DeNamur. “To get the best results, schools should bundle long- and short-term payback projects together.”

Automated Logic’s Harris continues, “For instance, five years ago utilities were offering great incentives to change out lighting, so everyone jumped on the opportunity. But they still had an inefficient monster of a boiler in the basement. If you completed both projects together you could have cut the return time for the boiler.” Done this way, the payback for long-term projects like windows, insulation, or roofs shrink.

“Institutions tolerate payback times around eight to 15 years, but in practice they want it sooner,” says DeNamur. “Sure, they are more structured and patient than a commercial client who would demand a payback in one to three years, but education still looks at three to five years as the ‘sweet spot.’”

Individual items also need careful consideration. “Adding daylighting to a building reduces electrical load right away, and if you filter out the UV and infrared heat it will lower HVAC costs as well,” says Dr. Neall Digert, MIES, vice president of product enterprise, Solatube. “If you have a simple system with a typical application, for instance if you are trying to daylight a gym, then you can certainly see a simple payback for this technology in five years. But the more complicated the project, like bringing daylight through multiple floors using expansive duct work, will bring the costs, and the payback time, up.”

“Some of what drives the motivation for energy efficiency on campus is the ‘PR factor,’” continues DeNamur. “A solar array on a roof is more attractive than some of the behind-the-walls stuff or working through a list of deferred maintenance projects. It makes for a more exciting press release.”

Schools also need to look for paybacks in places other than the utility bills. “A well-automated building cuts down on maintenance hours and costs,” says Lawrence Bacher, vice president, Gilbane Building Company. (Gilbane worked on the Joliet Junior College projects.) “Having a campus infrastructure that you can monitor and control from one central point costs you something in computing power, but it beats the alternative: an army of mechanics to set and adjust individual buildings. I can’t tell you the exact amount saved or the payback time for that, but efficiently running a complex plant with less staff makes sense.” 

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