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Going Green While Saving Green: Building and Refurbishing for Energy Savings

How to work toward a comprehensive energy plan.
University Business, Jun 2006

In many respects, Millikin University is like hundreds of other institutions. The campus of the small liberal arts college in Decatur, Ill., is a mix of historic buildings (some dating back 100 years) and new construction in the past decade. Millikin has the same challenges that many other institutions do in managing energy consumption in the face of sharply rising fuel costs. But one thing that sets it apart is a comprehensive strategy that has reduced overall energy costs by nearly 30 percent.

Energy efficiency was a part of the plan established by facilities outsourcer Aramark, which manages the Millikin campus. When the company took over operations two years ago, things were slightly different. "The timing of that was fortunate, considering what has happened to natural gas prices and all the issues that have brought energy to the forefront of media attention today," says Steve Gunther, vice president of operations for Aramark. "Two years ago those weren't really pressing issues, but looking at the way that Millikin was operating its facilities, we knew that integrating energy management had to be the key to the overall strategy."

Millikin has seen significant reductions in the consumption of both natural gas and electricity. "We've reduced natural gas by 14 percent and electric power by 4 percent," says Gunther, "and that's while increasing the level of service that we're delivering to the campus community."

The key to the plan is to identify all the unique energy saving opportunities for individual facilities. "There are no one-size-fits-all solutions," says Darr Hashempour, vice president of energy solutions at PinnacleOne, a consulting firm that provides advice at virtually every stage of the construction process. "Unfortunately, what works for the University of California may not work the same way for the University of Connecticut. But you can create an overall plan that will help you reach your goals."

What Millikin adopted was an energy program based on four points that, used as a framework, can help achieve results anywhere.

On older campuses especially, buildings have likely gone through a number of renovations and modifications. Chances are that not all these changes were made with energy efficiency in mind. Many of the buildings at Millikin, for example, are original to when the campus was established at its present location. "When we came on board at Millikin, the buildings systems and central energy systems weren't working in harmony in the way that they should," says Gunther. "One of the major initiatives in our energy action plan was to renovate and do preventative maintenance as needed to get them into optimum condition," says Gunther.

Freddy Chacin, a certified energy manager for facilities outsourcer UNICCO, currently working with Nova Southeastern University (Fla.), says there are many ways to manage energy opportunities in campus buildings. "The first step is make an assessment of the entire campus, its facilities, and the equipment. If the buildings are old, it's likely there are big opportunities to save money. For example, just replacing air conditioning chiller units with newer, energy-efficient models will save a tremendous amount of money," says Chacin. "And, advances in lighting technology in the last five years can result in electricity cost savings of 30 percent or more."

Institutions shouldn't shy away from renovating historical buildings to bring them up to optimum working condition, either. There are ways to improve building efficiency without dramatically altering a landmark. "There is nothing at all that keeps you from renovating an older building," says Hashempour. "The key is to consider how the building is used, and how its energy systems can be improved."

For example, many older buildings-and quite a few new buildings-use a cooling system built around "package units." A package unit is basically a box with a fan, a motor, and a cooling coil with a refrigerant. But it's also a complex piece of machinery, constantly switching on and off, with compressors that have to be replaced.

"Package units are energy inefficient-they are 1960s technology," he says. "Their initial cost is low, but the long-term cost is high."

Hashempour says the life cycle of a package unit is seven to 10 years. "But imagine a building with 42 package units, and how much trouble it is to maintain them all. To replace or repair a roof package unit, a crane has to be brought in, the area has to be closed off, and the building has no air conditioning."

Instead, he says, it makes more sense to centralize the cooling system. "Now you have a chiller and you have air handling units in the roofs, but they don't turn off and on. By comparison, the life cycle of a central unit is 25 to 30 years and the maintenance and operation is minimal. When a repair does have to be made, you can always manage to have at least 70 percent of the space air-conditioned, and that's far better than having 100 percent off. The energy efficiency is about 25-30 percent difference between the two systems."

"That should be the guiding principle for all construction," says Gunther. Since signing on with Aramark, Millikin has completed one new building which Gunther says qualifies for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, the standard developed by the US Green Building Council, although Millikin has chosen not to pursue it.

In general construction, depending on the type and size and complexity of the project, between 17 percent and 35 percent of the total construction cost is spent on energy infrastructure. It's a complex and expensive process, and it's definitely not a DIY project. That's why it makes sense to consider outsourcing energy functions early in the process, suggests Hashempour. Outsourcing can save 30 percent of energy costs, and it's not uncommon to save far more than that.

"Educators are good at educating, but they don't know anything about energy," says Hashempour. "That's why we have special people doing those kinds of jobs. Financially it is to your benefit to have someone else own the equipment and for you to lease it and pay for the usage. That way you can keep updating the technology, so you don't get stuck with old equipment that no longer works. When something goes wrong or needs to be updated it is taken care of. Why would you like to spend your money or a taxpayer's money to build something you don't know how to operate?"

Energy infrastructure is a complex and expensive process-
it's definitely not a DIY project.

Money saved by switching to an outsourcing approach can then be used elsewhere. "Let's say a school has a project budgeted for $10 million," he says. "If they have to spend 25 percent of that budget on energy infrastructure, that's $2.5 million. It's smarter to have ABC company come in, design, build, own, and operate the energy infrastructure, then sell the product-the electricity, natural gas, and hot and cold air-to the school. They specialize in that field; they're very efficient and they make money on their efficiency." On the other hand, he says, the school has saved $2.5 million, which it can use for other purposes. "It's a win-win situation. At the end of the day, those specialized technicians that work for the outsourced company maintain and operate the equipment. If there is a need for repair, they do it. The only obligation the end user has is to purchase the product."

"Sometimes you don't have to change out equipment to see savings," says Chacin. "You just have to manage the energy schedule better." For instance, a campus building might be open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. If you begin cooling that building at 4 a.m. so the first people to arrive are comfortable, it adds up to wasted money and energy over time. Peak building usage times are most crucial.

"Make sure that you are serving the students, faculty and administration and getting them to buy into the plan," says Gunther. "Who uses a particular building, and when? Can it operate differently and still meet the requirements they need to teach or learn? You want to have buildings that are responsive to their needs. They should meet, but not necessarily exceed, the needs of the people using those buildings."

One of the main initiatives at Millikin is the "holiday curtailment" program. As at other residential colleges, the campus becomes quiet during the holiday season. "Campuses don't go to great strides to curtail energy usage," says Gunther. "We implemented an aggressive program to identify who was going to be using what parts of the buildings, what departments or administrative staff would still be there. Then we compared that occupancy plan with the building systems. We tried to find out how we could take the systems with no use or limited use and turn them down, just like you would probably do in your home."

Millikin was able to document a 20 percent energy reduction over that first-year holiday period, and last year it realized a 27 percent overall energy reduction during the holiday season. "The first year we did that was a great learning experience. We could see how the uses in the buildings matched up with our ability to curtail energy use, and we found a number of places where people were occupying one portion but it forced us to keep an entire building energized."

"Whenever possible we seek outside funding from grants and other sources to help subsidize a lot of the work that goes on, and to help stretch the limited capital dollars we have for modernization and renewal even further," says Gunther. "It not only helps us deal with some of the infrastructure repair issues, but it also helps us ensure that we're incorporating energy programs and initiatives into those projects. We have to demonstrate that those renovations are not just cosmetic in nature, but that there is actually a return on investment."

Gunther says an important part of the strategy was making sure the campus community knew not only how much money was being saved, but that those savings were being reinvested into other parts of the campus. After the initial overall savings of 20 percent, the campus community was more eager to participate in other cost savings measures, because they could see tangible results of the savings.

"In terms of real dollars, that had even more of an impact because we were all aware of the rise of natural gas prices," says Gunther. "We reinvested those savings into other things and highlighted how that money wasn't wasted by keeping the building energized, but was instead put to good use on the campus."

Getting to energy efficiency is just the first step, says Chacin. It's a continual process of evaluation and modification to make sure that your energy goals are consistently met.

"Once you have the system in place, you have to be even more aware of your energy uses," he says. "A campus is such an active, ever-changing place. One semester may have more morning classes, while the next may feature evening classes. You need to be able to make adjustments to be able to condition the buildings for when they are needed, and not waste energy when they are not needed."

Hashempour agrees: "We have to reduce as much as we can, and continue to use the newest technology. It's not a quick fix. It will take time and we'll all have to work together."


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