The UB Energy Message

Controlling fuel and power costs impacts academics & helps the environment, too

UB North Campus

View of the North Campus at night conveys the energy forces at work in a complex institution like UB. From left: Hochstetter Hall, the Natural Sciences Complex and Capen Hall. (Photo by Douglas Levere, BA '89)

After the post-hurricane energy crunch, it seems everyone is thinking about the high cost of energy. But at UB, saving energy—for environmental and financial reasons—has been a priority for more than 25 years. Along the way, the university has become a national and international leader among academic institutions in saving energy and money. How much has ub saved? According to energy logs recorded since the late 1970s and verified in 1996 by the IRT Results Center, an independent research organization, cumulative savings to that point were $65 million, with annual energy savings reaching as high as $9 million.

If those figures seem impressive, consider that between 1982 and 1987, the North Campus grew by 20 percent, which is more than 775,000 square feet of new building space, including Alumni Arena, Bonner Hall, the Computing Center, Jacobs Hall, Park Hall and the first phase of the Student Union. Yet during that time, overall campus energy consumption was actually less in 1987 than in 1982 (using weather-adjusted data). In other words, the heating, cooling, lighting and equipment needs of those buildings were met entirely by energy conservation measures, with additional savings left over.

But controlling energy costs is a never-ending challenge. Fast-forward and today UB has more than 10 million square feet of building space on both campuses used by more than 32,000 students, faculty and staff—in essence, a small-sized city. If the energy demands are staggering, the costs are more so. Before Hurricanes Katrina and Rita ravaged Gulf Coast energy supplies, the university expected its total energy bill for 2005–06 to be about 25 percent higher than the $21 million paid in 2001–02. But supply-side disruptions have driven that figure to more than $28 million, and for 2006–07, up to an estimated $30 million—a nearly 50 percent increase in five years.

There is no single, simple solution to managing the ever-increasing energy costs. That’s why UB has a multifaceted, multidisciplinary approach to saving energy dollars.

While reducing demand is critical, one of the biggest money-saving solutions starts on the supply side, according to Michael Dupre, associate vice president for university facilities. In the 1990s, both the natural gas and electric markets were deregulated. UB was the first SUNY campus to take advantage of the new energy markets, purchasing electricity and natural gas on the open market, where it could negotiate the best price. In addition, the university uses a variety of hedging contracts to help stabilize the prices it pays. In one of these hedging contracts, known as a “contract for differences,” the energy supplier guarantees an average price ceiling, protecting the university against future price spikes.

“We’ve usually come in lower than the average market price on those contracts,” says Dupre. He attributes past annual savings of $1 million to $1.5 million to the university’s open market energy purchasing strategy, although recent market conditions have reduced those savings.

But no one anticipated the radical price spikes that followed last year’s Gulf Coast hurricanes. To mitigate the effect of such spikes, one strategy UB is exploring is moving from “day ahead” electricity purchases—energy purchases made the day before the energy is delivered and consumed—to “hour ahead,” which have produced approximate savings of $80,000 to $90,000 in the past year.

In addition, because larger purchases earn bigger discounts, system-wide energy purchases for all SUNY campuses is another strategy being pursued. “There’s an effort to look at SUNY’s energy needs holistically,” says Dupre. “It has all the right dimensions for potential future savings.”

Josh Hancock

Engineering student Josh Hancock is finding ways to harness French fry grease and other waste cooking oil to help supplement traditional fuels. (Photo by Douglas Levere, BA '89)

The largest energy-and-money saving program was undertaken on the North Campus between 1994 and 1997 by UB and CES/Way International (now Sempra Energy Solutions). With the efficiencies resulting from this $17 million project, which included retrofitting lighting, heating and cooling equipment and controls, and eliminating unneeded equipment to reduce demand, the energy savings more than repaid the project costs over a ten-year period.

System improvements included sophisticated monitoring controls and variable-speed drives on the huge air circulation systems that regulate building temperatures. Power consumption is greatly reduced by controlling the speed and run- times of the very large electric motors to meet the precise heating and cooling needs in each building. Even more sophisticated controls in some newer academic buildings provide room-by-room temperature control for maximum savings.

A similar $11.8 million program with Chevron Energy Systems is now under way on the South Campus, where some infrastructure is 100 years old. The projected savings there are up to $1.2 million annually.

Of course, a simple expedient is lowering heating temperatures in the winter and raising cooling temperatures in the summer, just as one might adjust a home thermostat. “If our building tenants could change their habits and tolerate these temperatures,”says James “Beau” Willis, interim executive vice president for finance and operations, “that means UB could maximize savings as much as possible.”

Of all the energy costs, electricity is by far the largest item in UB’s energy budget, so exploring alternative power sources is part of any pollution-and-cost-reduction strategy. UB was the first SUNY campus to purchase commercially generated wind power, and is one of New York State’s largest purchasers as well. Unfortunately, today’s costs are slightly higher for this particular non-polluting energy.

But future wind power purchases may save money, as the fuel source for wind power is essentially free once the power plants are built. According to John Russo, utilities manager for University Facilities, the university is negotiating with a number of wind generators in upstate New York, including a proposed wind farm on Buffalo’s waterfront that could be a good fit with UB’s future energy plans.

Walter Simpson

Walter Simpson, UB’s Energy Officer, holds a solar panel atop Norton Hall, soon to be one of the largest such campus installations in New York State. (Photo by Biff Henrich)

Other alternative energy sources such as solar power, while good for the environment, are not yet economically feasible without government incentives. A 72 kilowatt solar panel array on top of Norton Hall scheduled to be installed this fall will be one of the largest on any campus building in New York State. The $800,000 project, made possible by a grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), is at this point a demonstration project rather than a money-saver, according to Walter Simpson, UB’s energy officer. Ironically, a worldwide push to develop alternative energy sources, especially in Europe, has driven up prices for the photovoltaic panels used in solar arrays, as well as components for wind turbines, making some alternative energy sources temporarily even more expensive.

And while most of us think about fighting skyrocketing energy costs by driving less or buying a hybrid vehicle, UB is already in the forefront of that effort, even though motor vehicles are only a small slice of total energy use at the university. Currently, UB has a fleet of AFVs, or Alternative Fuel Vehicles, including 56 CNG (Compressed Natural Gas) vehicles, three gas/electric hybrids, and two hydrogen fuel cell/electric vehicles scheduled for delivery in 2006. The vehicles do have lower fuel costs and emissions than conventional vehicles, says John Hayes, assistant director of buildings and grounds, so their higher initial costs will be offset by the fuel savings over the 12- to 14-year life of each vehicle.

One promising initiative for vehicle fuels is being led by a UB undergraduate engineering student. Josh Hancock, a junior in environmental engineering and a member of the UB chapter of Engineers for a Sustainable World, is using a $2,000 grant from the Faculty Student Association to conduct a pilot project to study the feasibility of converting waste cooking oil from the university’s food services to biodiesel for use primarily in campus snow removal equipment. Hancock’s preliminary research shows that UB produces 2,600 gallons of waste cooking oil with an annual disposal cost of about $2,000. That waste oil can be converted into 2,400 gallons of biodiesel, which is 20 percent of UB Facilities’ annual diesel consumption, making the converted cooking oil a perfect match for “B20”— a 20% biofuel/80% petroleum diesel mixture that UB Facilities already obtains from outside sources.

“Biofuels are a great way to supplement traditional fuels and reduce our dependence on foreign oil,” says Hancock, “particularly when they’re coming from waste grease, which reduces a current waste stream.”

While the biggest savings come from simply not using energy, sometimes what the university doesn’t do produces savings. In recent years, UB designated 122 acres, or 20 percent of the lawn acreage on the North Campus, as “natural regeneration” areas and stopped mowing, thus saving fuel and labor costs.

Campus-wide recycling efforts also yield significant dividends. UB targets a 50 percent recycling rate, and currently achieves a 38 percent rate. “For every five percent we increase recycling,” says John Hayes, “we save $25,000 to $30,000 a year in landfill tipping fees.” Reducing energy consumption through increased efficiency is the key to future savings. “Nothing is cleaner or more cost-effective than a kilowatt-hour or BTU saved,” observes Walter Simpson. He points to initiatives such as the UB High Performance Building Guidelines, which incorporate the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system to produce “super-efficient” buildings with much lower operating costs. “If a building’s annual operating cost is $500,000 to $750,000,” says Simpson, “constructing it to be 10 to 20 percent more efficient saves millions of dollars over the life of the building.”

Most important is that every dollar saved on energy costs can go right back to the university’s core mission of education. That’s a message that can motivate every member of the UB community to help save energy. “Savings accumulate the more people understand that energy conservation affects everything we do,” says Beau Willis. “When people heed that message, conservation efforts start to pay off.”

Blair Boone, PhD ’84, is a Buffalo-based freelance writer.