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Five Ways for Colleges and Universities to Get Smart About Energy

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Increasing numbers of colleges and universities are making a commitment to foster sustainability on campus. This strategy aligns well with university missions that include public service, thought leadership and pioneering new technologies. But at the end of the day, the most compelling reason is financial. Energy makes up only a small percentage of a university’s operating budget (about 3.5 percent on average), but in terms of raw dollars, America’s colleges and universities spend almost $7 billion in energy and utilities. Cutting energy costs even by 10 percent means $700 million dollars to reinvest in student programs, facility improvements, and other initiatives that benefit the entire campus community.

The opportunity to drive savings is especially compelling in a university environment. Campuses typically have a mix of building stock across a campus, with many older buildings in need of upgrades and facilities staff challenged to work within a tight budget. Historically, a major hindrance to effective energy management has been simply getting the necessary visibility to identify and address problems that are costing the most money. But today, data and analytics play a starring role in energy management. Technology now helps colleges and universities bring to life patterns that show how energy is misspent, whether from equipment in need of tune-up or repair, or “operator errors” like lights left on or thermostats set incorrectly after hours. By gleaning these sorts of insights, educational institutions have the tools and information to prioritize limited resources for immediate results.

There are ultimately only two levers to reduce energy usage: capital investments (better equipment) and operating adjustments (changing how energy is used). Capital investments have proven returns but often require a capital outlay for which educational institutions can lack budget. But the good news is there are significant savings that can be recouped simply by making low- or no-cost adjustments to existing operating processes.

Here’s a look at the five most common, no-cost energy efficiency measures that can immediately help educational institutions save money and dramatically improve operational efficiency, without sacrificing occupant comfort:

  1. Setbacks: As Chris Powell, Brown University’s director of sustainable energy and environmental initiatives, says: “Energy doesn’t call you in the middle of the night to tell you that it’s being wasted.” Most university buildings are scheduled to use less energy during nights and weekends. Temperatures are adjusted, lights are turned off, and other systems are scheduled to “relax,” but how do you know your systems are doing what they’re told? Setbacks schedules are frequently overridden for a one time exception—either on purpose or manually by students (like the time a chess club at Western Connecticut State University used a broom handle to manually override a lighting schedule when using a classroom building one Sunday). But one-time exceptions that don’t get reprogrammed can often lead to ongoing non-optimal use.
  2. Startup Sequences: How a university starts up a conditioned space is just as important as how it efficiently shuts off or sets back systems. Startup spikes may result in unnecessary peak demand charges that can be avoided with simple planning. Often, a university experiences demand spikes that result from concurrently powering up multiple electrical systems at the start of the day. But by gradually ramping up mechanical equipment in a staged manner, excessive energy charges can be avoided without compromising occupant comfort. In some cases, a staged start up might mean using more kilowatt hours of electricity. But by avoiding the peak demand charges, an educational institution could shave a considerable percentage off its bill. Understanding exactly how you’re charged for electricity is critical for developing an energy efficiency strategy.
  3. Peak Demand Charges: Peak demands don’t just occur during start up. These charges are typically calculated over the 15-minute interval when an institution uses the greatest amount of energy in a given billing period, and can equal up to 30 percent of a university’s energy bill. Pinpointing exactly when you’re hitting peak demand and setting those costly charges is virtually impossible if your only source of data is your electric bill. But with real-time visibility of energy usage, demand peaks become obvious, including irregular peaks caused by improperly programmed building management systems or other mechanical system failures. Real-time visibility offers institutions the opportunity to save money on demand changes, and also proactively address mechanical system problems before they result in building emergencies.
  4. Mechanical Equipment Cycling: There are many cases when mechanical equipment in conditioned spaces malfunctions or is improperly programmed. This leads to inefficient operation, unnecessarily high electrical bills and reduced equipment life. Paying close attention to real-time energy use enables institutions to identify and proactively address problems, with the potential of significant cost savings. Brown University saved thousands of dollars annually by revising heat recovery system controls to shut off when the outside air temperature was between 65 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit, without adversely affecting occupancy comfort.
  5. Optimization of Air Handler Units: AHUs are a critical part of any building HVAC system and can provide opportunities for substantial energy savings. AHUs are mechanical systems responsible for conditioning and filtering air delivered throughout a building. There are often ways to leverage external environmental conditions to optimize air handling performance and create savings opportunities. For example, data from a building management system might show an AHU was using mechanically-produced chilled water when free cooling was available. This occurs when the outside air temperature is below the supply air temperature set point. Office and administration spaces connected to an AHU at Brown University were controlled to maintain space temperature setpoints around 68 Fahrenheit during heating mode and 70 Fahrenheit during cooling mode. Because office spaces are unoccupied during evenings and weekends, the university opted to switch off that particular AHU to save on energy costs. Additionally, Brown found the static setpoint of certain AHUs was appropriate during hours with high air conditioning loads but wasn’t necessarily needed during other hours of operation. The university could reset static pressure during unoccupied times to further reduce costs.

The biggest value in seeing reduction in energy expenditures is the ability to keep costs down for students," says Mary Beth McKenzie, executive director of administrative services for Fitchburg State University (Mass.). "The strategies we employ when we reduce our utilities outlay means there are fewer cost increases that need to be passed on to our students."

These five energy savings measures, taken either individually or collectively, can help a college or university enjoy significant cost savings.

David McDougall is Senior Manager of Energy Services for EnerNOC, Inc., provider of energy management applications and services.