A New Front for Campus Activism: Energy Efficiency

A New Front for Campus Activism: Energy Efficiency

The lights in Michael Siminovitch's office at the U.C. Davis California Lighting Technology Center dim in response to daylight entering through the windows. These special lights are just one way that Siminovitch, the center's director, believes the university can slash much of its energy demand.

Staff, faculty and students from California universities and colleges recently gathered to learn about hot lighting technology and other new ideas at the UC-CSU-CCC Sustainability in Higher Education Conference. Held at U.C. Santa Barbara this summer, it was the nation's largest conference of its kind.

As climate change looms ever larger and with California still reeling from its 2001 energy crisis, the conference is just one sign that the state's behemoth higher education systems are overcoming bureaucratic inertia and clamoring for greener changes.

In fact, cutting energy use is a key element in the University of California and California State University systems' plans to lessen their environmental toll. With 33 campuses and a combined faculty, students and staff of more than 870,000 people, U.C. and CSU systems have huge energy demands. That demand is only growing as enrollment increases and campuses expand. But despite these upward pressures, U.C. and CSU have managed to slash their energy usage system-wide in recent years and are working to make even deeper cuts.

Fretting over energy efficiency has long been left to campus energy managers who have had little money to invest in conservation. But things changed in 2004 when the state Public Utilities Commission funded the creation of the UC-CSU-IOU Energy Efficiency Partnership. The schools partnered with the four major IOU's, or state investor-owned utilities, Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison, San Diego Gas & Electric and Southern California Gas Co. to aggressively cut energy demand through efficiency, efficiency and more efficiency.

In the first two years of the program, U.C. and CSU exceeded savings targets by 30 percent, saving 32 million kilowatt hours and 1.5 million therms of gas in 2004 and 2005. The electricity savings alone are enough to power more than 2,800 homes in the U.S. Now, the PUC has upped the ante -- doubling their funding to $34 million for 2006 to 2008 and asking them to quadruple energy savings.

"The conventional wisdom is that we can do a lot of efficiency and do improvements but our energy costs will always increase," said Karl Brown, deputy director of the U.C.-run California Institute for Energy and Environment. That, Brown added, is simply not true.

From the Present to the Future

While the campuses have taken the obvious steps of retrofitting their facilities with compact fluorescent bulbs, newer machinery and appliances, the university's research arm is helping develop the efficiency tools of tomorrow and holding down energy costs.

In the race to save more energy, there is a constant need for innovation, said Aaron Klemm, CSU's energy program manager. "It's a case of emerging technologies that need to mature," he said.

The partnership relies on U.C. researchers, among others, to do the innovating. One place they are looking to is the California Lighting Technology Center at U.C. Davis. The center's researchers are at work on several projects, including a bi-level stairway fixture. It dims the lights in unused stairwells using integrated occupancy sensors; the lights, installed at seven U.C. and CSU sites, save 50 to 80 percent in energy. The Institute has also helped create what they call an integrated classroom lighting system which reduces the amount of lighting needed by installing ceiling tiles with high reflective paint alongside more efficient lights. The system exceeds current California energy building code standards by 30 to 50 percent.

Siminovitch, the Center for Lighting Technology director, as well as an environmental design professor at U.C. Davis, said lighting sucks up about 20 percent of the state's electricity use. Smarter lighting can make a huge difference in a building's energy demand, he said. But developing technology is not the biggest challenge as Siminovitch sees it: "Our problem is knowledge barriers -- people don't know to do this."

Another thing people don't know, it turns out, is how much energy individual parts are sucking up in a building. That's where monitoring based commissioning comes in. The idea is to put meters not just at the building level, but on specific energy-using devices within buildings. Facility managers can monitor systems in real time, pinpoint if their air conditioner, for instance, is sucking up unusual amounts of energy and fix it.

"It's typical for a building to get built and used without testing the AC system or the lighting controls," said Brown. "People realized that you had to tune up a building from time to time and we started to realize that the ability to do this was tied to the monitoring you had for the building's energy systems."

Monitoring based commissioning, developed back in the 1990s at U.C.'s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Texas A&M University, is now installed at 40 sites around U.C. and CSU campuses. Those buildings have cut energy use an average of 10 percent -- some as much as 24 percent. The average payback on investment is two years, but the best part is that the savings are indefinite, Brown added.

While it may not have the catchiest name, Brown believes monitoring based commissioning is turning conventional wisdom on energy efficiency on its head. "The traditional way of looking at energy use is that the energy use of a building is predetermined and immutable and that it's operating close to its optimum capacity... we're showing you can have really dramatic changes in energy use."

U.C. Santa Barbara has found myriad ways to decrease its energy use -- including commissioning its campus central plant chilled water system, installing variable speed drives on machinery and room occupancy lighting controls. Over the past eight years, the campus has cut its energy use by 30 percent per square foot. In 2006, UCSB managed to cut energy, saving about 17 million kilowatt hours, despite the construction of energy-sucking science and engineering buildings, according to Jim Dewey, the university's energy manager.

UCSB received an Excellency in Energy Efficiency Award in May from UC-CSU-IOU Energy Efficiency Partnership member Southern California Edison. The California Public Utilities Commission and the National Wildlife Federation have also recognized UCSB's efficiency efforts.

"What's unique about the partnership is there's decision making going on at the state level. We work in a team setting where we can identify problems and share best practices," said Jeanne Boyce, a manager at Southern California Edison's customer service business unit.

In fact, facility operators from campuses gather for joint training sessions to learn more about conservation practices such as LEED building standards and managing data centers.

Creating the Sustainable Curriculum

But it's not just facility and energy managers looking to save the university money that are playing important roles. Students and faculty have lent support to these efforts and have boosted energy conservation. Students themselves have pressured U.C. and CSU leaders to adopt environmentally friendly policies. One of the biggest moves was the entire U.C. system and four CSU campuses signing onto the American College and University President's Climate Commitment this year. It has strong energy efficiency goals as part of its pledge to become climate neutral as soon as possible.

While they have pressured for top-down action, students are doing plenty from the bottom-up. The nonprofit Washington D.C.-based Alliance to Save Energy has boosted student efforts at 12 U.C. and CSU campuses by helping them create projects to save energy at their schools. The so-called Green Campus Initiative hires interns at each campus who work to get students involved in energy conservation projects.

Students from U.C. Santa Barbara and Cal State San Bernardino involved in the program won a Best Practice award at the Sustainability in Higher Education Conference for, among other things, holding a year-long energy-saving competition on campus, helping and implement LEED building standards and working with staff to cut back vending machine power use.

Students are also learning more about issues such as these as faculty work to integrate concepts like energy conservation, climate change and green building into course curricula. Universities as a whole are embracing the notion that sustainability is something that has to be taught and not just to people in environmental science or sustainability…we need it as much in English and History," said Tom Kimmerer, executive director of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.

Geography students at CSU Chico learned to conduct energy audits and the university has a Professor of Environmental Literacy charged with educating students of all majors on environmental issues. U.C. Berkeley's interdisciplinary Energy and Resources Group offers a course on energy sources and consumption while students run an "Energy 101" class. U.C. Davis students take a class where they compete to have the best LED light design.

"It's a fundamental shift in how higher education sees its mission," said Andy Coghlan, who works on the initiative at the Alliance to Save Energy. "You're seeing it integrated into curriculum, into MBA and PhD programs. These programs are going to train the leaders of tomorrow who will be able to take on the significant environmental challenges of the next 50 years."

Fiona Smith is a freelance journalist based in Oakland, Calif.