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Technologies for the Physical Plant

Building Smarts

More than ever before, campuses are turning to technology to save money on energy and build better buildings.

Building Smarts

LET’S FACE IT: Most people don’t need Al Gore to convince them that the Earth’s environment has been changing significantly in the last few years. Sure, the former vice president and presidential candidate educated everyone with his 2006 documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, but with Hurricane Katrina, rising temperatures, and shrinking snows atop Kilimanjaro, evidence of something climatically amiss is all around us. Some call these weird atmospheric events “global warming,” others a natural “Little Ice Age” cycle; but whatever you call it, the evidence of change is irrefutable. Compounding the situation, energy costs are higher than ever before. In some states, particularly those in the northeastern US, energy costs have doubled in the last three or four years. Does this spell disaster for institutions of higher education? Maybe not: Many colleges and universities are doing their part to react to these challenges without breaking the bank.


TALK ABOUT YOUR EFFECTIVE USE OF TECHNOLOGY: In 2002, student groups at the University of California-Berkeley approved the first of several budget appropriations for the installation of photovoltaic (PV) panels on the roof of the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union. Not long after, an additional $270,000 in funding for the project was provided by the California Public Utilities Commission. The system was installed in the fall of 2003.

Today, the 5,000-square-foot PowerGuard installation from PowerLight is capable of generating 59 kilowatts of electricity, operating at peak times (sunny summer days) when demand for electricity is greatest. The system integrates the PV cells with R-19 insulated panels, in a modular system that allows for future expansion.

Looking forward, the school has plans to expand the rooftop array with an additional 60 panels, say school officials. Even without this expansion, PowerLight estimates that the system will save $390,000 in electrical utility charges over its lifetime. Considering that the cost of traditional energy sources continues to rise, the investment looks smarter every day.

For most, intelligent response involves technology. Schools such as Pennsylvania State University, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Adelphi University (NY), Hamilton College (NY), and Fairfield University (CT) are turning to new technologies and tech products to cut down on energy usage, control HVAC systems, and save big bucks.

Still other schools, such as the University of California-Berkeley, have invested in renewable energy measures (see “Catching Some Rays,”).

While many of these efforts have been successful, they are not without their tests. For instance: How do IT managers justify capital expenditures on new tech products, when the goal is to save money? How do campuses raise conservation awareness among students and faculty members? Academic technologists are compelled to answer questions like these, but sometimes the answers aren’t easy ones.

Penn State: Centralizing Energy Management

At Pennsylvania State University, technologists have built a comprehensive energy management system around a solution called Itron. Dubbed the Guaranteed Energy Savings Program (GESP), the effort also incorporates hardware from building efficiency vendor Johnson Controls, enterprise resource planning software from Metasys, and a variety of other products and technologies.

Building Smarts

A CENTRALIZED ENERGY MANAGEMENT system at Penn State allows HVAC, lighting, and security data from multiple buildings to be interpreted, stored, and commanded in one system.

The $3.4 million project was launched in 2006; thus far, it involves 50 of 600 buildings on campus. In a nutshell, the system brings together all of the campus building automation systems; factors in outside data about outside temperatures; and compares this information to a class roster to determine which classrooms are occupied, and when. The goals, according to Energy Program Engineer Laura Miller, are to improve efficiency and cut costs.

“We’re trying to get a system that has all of this information in one place so that when we do our energy management, we can go to one source instead of several different sources,” she says. “Centralizing these tasks makes it easier for everyone, not to mention the fact that it also just makes sense.”

Since implementing the EnergyCAP solution in 2005, the University of Alabama at Birmingham has spotted more than $120,000 in utility billing errors, and has uncovered a damaged gas meter, leaky valves, and recurring double charges on a sewage account.

In the past, each building was controlled separately with hardware from various vendors. Because the hardware was different in each building, most of the structures had their own building automation systems (BAS) that controlled HVAC, lighting, and security. These systems made it easy to manage energy on a building-by-building basis. Controlling multiple buildings was difficult, however, since one system didn’t talk to the others.

The new system eliminates that problem. By inputting into the Itron solution BAS information for every building, BAS data from disparate spots on campus can be interpreted, stored, and commanded in one system. Perhaps the most sophisticated aspect of the system is the way it interfaces with the school’s course management system, automatically powering down lights and computers when the schedule indicates a classroom is not in use.


EARLIER THIS YEAR, on Feb. 2, student representatives from environmental organizations at all eight Ivy League universities urged their institutions to commit to climate neutrality and reduce their impact on the environment. (Climate neutrality can be achieved through reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, renewable energy generation, or carbon offsets.)

“Our schools have a unique position in society, given their academic and financial resources,” noted Craig Altemose, a graduate student at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University (MA). “They have the potential and responsibility to lead by example.”

This coalition of Ivy League students is specifically calling for their schools to reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2050. The goal mirrors expected recommendations of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for avoiding the worst effects of climate change.

The students’ goals were enumerated in a resolution delivered to each university’s student government and administration. The resolution first appeared this winter, during a week of action on global warming called “Rising to the Climate Challenge,” which included events on more than 575 campuses across the US and Canada.

“It’s all about who is using the building when,” says Miller, who adds that hardware currently on the system includes products from Johnson Controls, Siemens, DeltaV, Square D, and Eaton Cutler-Hammer, to name a few. “This system also has a built-in alarm,” she adds, “so if someone is modifying the schedules, we’ll know about it.”

Penn State officials expect that with these improved efficiencies, the system will save the school between $600,000 and $800,000 per year in avoided energy costs. Miller says that while state-run institutions usually look for a 15-year payback on technology investments, this system has the ability to pay for itself within five or six years. At a time when energy costs continue to rise, those are metrics worth noting.

University of Alabama: Hunting for Errors

Improvements in energy management also are afoot at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where technologists have turned to EnergyCAP to achieve similar results. Here, the system aggregates and retains utility data for every building on campus, from 1993 to the present. The objective: to track trends and identify billing mistakes that could cost the institution hundreds of thousands of dollars a pop.

Specifically, the EnergyCAP system coordinates five types of data for 284 buildings on campus: electricity, steam, natural gas, water, and sewer. By tracking this data over time, the school can predict how to set its utility budgets for the coming year. UAB Engineer Kelly Winnett says that when administrators factor in current energy rates, they also can calculate what utility bills should be, and identify any mistakes in the billing process.

“The program not only helps us spot utility company operation errors, but also helps us detect problems within the buildings,” says Winnett, noting that the school’s overall utilities budget is right around $50 million for the year. With so much money at stake, the ability to catch billing mistakes is vital. “It’s like an insurance policy that we use to make sure we’re not paying more than we should be,” she asserts.

Since implementing the EnergyCAP solution in 2005, UAB has spotted more than $120,000 in utility billing errors. The solution also has helped officials pinpoint a damaged gas meter, leaky valves, and recurring double charges on a sewage account. Considering that the school only spent $50,000 on the technology, Winnett notes the Energy- CAP system has paid for itself already— and then some.

To make sure students, faculty, and staff members are aware of the effort to reduce energy costs, the school recently embarked on an advertising campaign, Winnett reports. The campaign plays on UAB’s school colors: green and gold. Signs imploring constituents to “Think Green – Save Gold” have been affixed to campus vehicles. So far, at least according to the engineer, the advertisements have worked.

“Energy costs trickle down to students in the form of higher tuition and fees,” she says. “The more we can help raise awareness across campus that we’re striving to conserve energy, the better off we all will be.”

Adelphi University: Encouraging Shutdowns

Technologists at Adelphi University have turned to similar tools to control the amount of energy used in their computer labs: A program called Drive- Shield (from Centurion Technologies) shuts down computers every night at a predetermined time.

At Adelphi University, machines in the campus computer labs were wasting 2,520,000 watts of power every night, until software was installed to automatically shut down the computers at 11 pm. The school now saves $9,000 of ‘found’ money each month, or $108,000 each year.

According to CIO Jack Chen, the business case for this product was compelling. The school has nearly 700 computers in labs across campus, he reports, with machines each averaging 300 watts per hour while idle. Throw in energy usage from monitors, he adds (roughly 150 watts per hour), and all told, the campus computer labs were wasting 315,000 watts of power each hour or 2,520,000 watts over the course of an eight-hour night.

Building Smarts

ON THE HORIZON for Adelphi: Interfacing its DriveShield program with a course schedule, to predict lab usage over time and shut down computers one hour after the last class ends each day.

Chen realized that shutting down the machines would save big bucks, so he bought DriveShield last year, installed it on each machine and programmed the software to automatically shut down computers at 11 pm. With electricity in that region at 13 cents per kilowatt hour, shutting down the machines for eight hours now saves about $327.60 each night, $9,000 each month, and $108,000 annually.

“It’s amazing when you think about how much we’re saving just by shutting these things off each night,” Chen says. “People forget how much energy computers use when they’re just sitting there waiting for someone to use them.”

Down the road, he adds, the school will look into expanding the shutdown program to determine which computers can be shut down even earlier in the evening. To accomplish this, he says, the school will need to interface the Drive- Shield program with a course schedule to predict lab usage over time. Ultimately, he says, the goal will be to shut down computers exactly one hour after the last class has ended.

Another project on the horizon is an effort to minimize printing costs and the energy required to power campus printers. The school is investigating the use of Pcounter software from AND Technologies, to limit to 500 the number of pages students can print per semester. Once students exceed this amount, they would have to pay 5 cents per page. Expected savings: $25,000 per year in toner and paper alone.

“Printing is a big expense,” says Chen, who notes that expected savings wouldn’t even account for the money saved by reducing energy usage across the board. “Some savings here, some savings there—all of a sudden, you’ve saved quite a bit.” And such savings—as most CIOs know—can mean newfound funding for other initiatives previously unable to get off the planning board.

Hamilton College and Fairfield U: Innovative HVAC

While Adelphi has highlighted energy reduction as a strategic goal for 2007, the school also is investigating a new geothermal heating system to reduce HVAC costs. But Adelphi is not alone in this quest. At schools across the nation, IT and facilities management departments are collaborating on similar technologies that harness natural climactic conditions and existing energy sources to achieve savings in the areas of heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning, as well.

IT and facilities management pros at Hamilton College, for instance, recently compiled a number of technologies to comprise a web-based interface that managers at the school now use to control the school’s HVAC system. The solution, which launched in May, incorporates software and hardware from vendors such as Siemens, Saia, and Hansa, to name only a few.

While thermostats in individual classrooms report temperature in those spaces, and sensors determine when the rooms become occupied, behind the scenes the new system “finds” natural alternatives to heat and cool the rooms accordingly. Steve Bellona, associate vice president for facilities and planning, explains that to minimize waste, the solution takes advantage of chilly outside air to provide cooling, for instance, or recaptures the heat created from burning natural gas and works it back into the system.

Building Smarts

AT FAIRFIELD U, a new turbine powered by natural gas provides electricity to the campus; engineers recently completed a system that captures heat from the process, powering the school’s HVAC system.

“We see this as a ‘closed-loop system’ approach to heating and cooling, as opposed to a ‘component approach’ that treats every building and classroom like its own spot,” he says. “At the end of the day, we’re trying to use technology to harness nature and get the most out of what we have so that we can save money down the road.”

Bellona says it’s still too early to determine exactly how much the system cost, but he notes that each Siemens thermostat cost roughly $1,000, and that the school will own 24 of the devices by the end of next year. Down the road, he says, Hamilton expects to save between $15,000 and $20,000 annually from reduced reliance on natural gas and electricity—figures that suggest the technology could pay for itself in a matter of years.

Similar innovative approaches are underway at Fairfield University, where technologists have teamed up with the school’s facilities management team to oversee a new heat and power project. At the heart of the project is a brand new turbine powered by natural gas. While the turbine itself provides electricity to the campus, engineers recently completed a system that captures heat from the process, powering the school’s HVAC system.

The new, $9.5 million system was rolled out in June. Ric Taylor, former associate vice president for campus planning and operations (Taylor resigned this year after 20 years of service at Fairfield), says that over time, the system will provide about 67 percent of the campus’ fossil fuel energy requirements. He adds that with rejected heat used for heating and cooling, boilers will run far less frequently, and unhealthy air emissions on the campus actually will decrease.

“According to studies, our sulfur oxide levels will drop 96 percent and our nitrogen oxide will drop 17 percent,” he says, adding that “those two compounds are principal components of acid rain. It’s not often in this business that you can say investments in technology will reduce your emissions.”

At a time when energy costs in New England continue to rise, the school will enjoy other savings, as well. Overall, Taylor notes that the system will reduce annual energy costs by roughly $2.2 million, bringing the budget back to 2005 levels. Coupled with $2.3 million in state grants and $1 million in cost abatements from the local gas company, the investment should pay for itself in two to three years.

::WEBEXTRAS :: Learn more about campus energy management. Green building programs save campus dollars. Terry Calhoun opines on “Power, Power, and Power”. A power surge at North Dakota State University left student records vulnerable.

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