Are Your Energy Savings Real? Energy Modeling and Management at Rice University

Posted on November 17, 2009. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , |

When are reductions in energy consumption verifiable savings?

With the emergence of the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) and increasing focus on energy costs and supplies, universities across America are pursuing measures to reduce their energy consumption and their greenhouse gas emissions.  As these schools attempt to measure their results and document savings, I ask how do they really know when they are saving energy?

Let’s assume that a campus building is metered for all utilities, and that these utilities can be tracked on a weekly basis.  And further, let’s assume a two-week experiment, and that at the beginning of the second week space temperatures in the building are changed as part of a new campus building temperature policy to reflect what is considered to be a more efficient range.  If the meter readings were lower in week two than week one, can a utility manager conclude that the energy conservation measure was a success?  Given our experience at Rice University, we would argue that the answer is no.

The energy consumption of a building from one time period to the next is influenced by a number of variables, including outdoor temperature, humidity, time of day, day of the week, and day of the year.  In the example above, week two could have been significantly cooler than week one, potentially leading to a false conclusion about the effectiveness of the new policy, and even masking unintended consequences of changing space temperatures.  However, by creating a weather-normalized baseline model for energy consumption as our energy managers have done at Rice and then comparing this baseline against actual meter data, we submit that utility managers can be much more confident in interpreting their results.

How might one visualize this?  Figure 1 presents one week of data for chilled water consumption at our student center, the Rice Memorial Center.  The y-axis expresses chilled water consumption, and the x-axis represents time (click the graphic to enlarge).  The red line shows the modeled baseline for chilled water consumption for that building.  The variation in the red baseline between daytime and nighttime is obvious, reflecting that we use more chilled water to condition the building during the day than we do at night.  And yet, while the model for each day looks generally similar in shape, it is not exactly the same, because in reality these days were of course not the same.  The blue line represents actual consumption, drawn straight from the chilled water meter at the building in near real-time.  What we see is that due to a variety of conservation measures enacted in that building during the summer of 2009, actual chilled water consumption is now consistently well below the baseline model.  Prior to these initiatives, the baseline and the actual meter readings would have been quite similar.  These results are weather-normalized: we’re not having to guess whether the savings might be related to a cold front or a series of cloudy days.

Figure 1

Figure 1 RMC Chilled Water Consumption

We can use this system to express cumulative building-level savings (or losses) from electricity, chilled water, and steam in dollars.  Figure 2 shows daily utility expenditures for the Rice Memorial Center over a 30-day period (click the graphic to enlarge).  The green bars represent actual daily costs, while the black lines are the predicted costs according to the baseline model.  Notice how each day has a different predicted consumption?  The blue space between the green bars and black lines indicates savings.  On the right side of Figure 2, we see that over a 30-day period, we saved $4,931.49 in steam, $1,618.11 in chilled water, and $780.13 in electricity, for a total utility savings of $7,329.74.

Figure 2

Figure 2 RMC Utility Expenditures

The ability to plot meter data against a predictive baseline is a game-changer for campus energy conservation.  Every two weeks, we hold an interdepartmental meeting to review the performance of a number of our campus buildings using this tool.  Sometimes we see unexpected results that trigger maintenance work orders.  Sometimes we find buildings whose nighttime setback temperatures have been placed in an override mode and need to be restored (and we can see the amount of money that we lost as a result of that decision).  In the case of our own facilities building, when an unexpected electrical load caused us to consume more electricity than predicted by the model, we were able to estimate the size of the additional load, and our maintenance manager tracked it down to a baking booth in the paint shop that had been switched on and left on for several days.  As one of my colleagues frequently observes, this tool allows us to shine the bright light of truth on how we’re consuming energy on our campus.

Rice’s approach to energy modeling is now the basis of a campus energy management product in development by Incuity Software, a subsidiary of Rockwell Automation.  We are working to embed within this system the ability to track greenhouse gas emissions, which would enable us to display and report campus-level and building-level predicted and actual carbon footprints, divisible by type of utility.  The position of our energy management team is that unless energy consumption is tracked against a weather-normalized baseline, we are suspicious of claims of actual savings.  The implications for greenhouse gas reporting are clear: as we develop our inventories and compare them with previous years, did we enact measures that genuinely reduced our emissions, or did cooperative weather make us lucky?  Without a proper baseline, we just don’t know.

(note: a modified version of this posting appeared in the November 2009 edition of the ACUPCC Implementer newsletter)

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Cloud 37: Lessons from LEED

Posted on August 16, 2009. Filed under: sustainability, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , |

Last week, one of my colleagues exclaimed that she was on Cloud 9, or rather, Cloud 37.  She’s not come down since.

Over the last several years, Rice has undertaken an ambitious $1 billion construction program, and the bulk of these facilities are now open.  We’re in celebration mode.  Almost all of our new buildings will be submitted for certification under the US Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) program, the industry standard for green building in the US that recognizes buildings based on their environmental performance at the increasing levels of LEED-certified, silver, gold, or platinum.  Earlier this month, we learned that one of our new buildings – the Rice Children’s Campus – had achieved certification at the level of LEED-Silver, scoring 37 points (almost gold!).  This marks the very first building at Rice to earn LEED certification at any level (although we expect many more to soon follow).

To date, I’ve worked on approximately a dozen LEED projects for new construction, and not all of them have left me on Cloud 9, or Cloud 37 as it may be.  In fact, there have been a number of dark clouds too.  My experiences – positive and negative – have taught me several process-oriented lessons about LEED that I believe are of value to other campus sustainability professionals as they participate in LEED projects on their own campuses.  They are as follows:

1. Commit from the beginning. Our biggest LEED train-wreck came when we decided to “do LEED” late in the design process of a project.  The project team had not been selected based on LEED credentials, and we quickly discovered both a lack of experience and interest amongst key team members.  After several difficult months, we abandoned the LEED process, although it wasn’t a complete loss as several design improvements were directly attributable to our flirtation with LEED.  The confusion led us to adopt a Sustainable Facilities Policy that clearly outlines our department’s LEED goals for future projects, a remedy that should prevent this sort of problem from occurring again.

2. Seek experienced consultants. Commitment to LEED by the university is just the first step.  The composition of the project team is very important, and prior LEED experience matters, although a lack of experience is not an insurmountable obstacle.  As the university interviews potential architects, contractors, and MEP (mechanical, electrical, and plumbing) engineers, they should review not only the LEED experience of each of these consultants, but also (and this is important) of the individuals who will represent these firms on the project team.  Prior LEED experience by the civil engineer and landscape architect are of course helpful too, but not as critical as with the aforementioned team members.

3. Designate the LEED-er. The LEED process needs a steward, and it shouldn’t be the university.  In fact, my preference is to hire a consultant specifically to lead the LEED process, one with a lengthy resume of prior LEED projects and a deep knowledge of a variety of LEED ratings systems and the associated rulings and intricacies of those systems.  This LEED-er can be the commissioning agent, which yields the benefit of engaging the commissioning perspective throughout the project’s design.  However, if the LEED responsibilities lie with one of the primary consultants, such as the architect, MEP, or contractor, then my experience is that the busier they become in the project, the greater the tendency to let their LEED responsibilities slip.

4. Set priorities. It’s not enough for the university to state an expectation that a project will achieve a certain level of LEED certification.  There are numerous pathways to certification, and the consultants need to know what aspects of LEED are of particular importance to the university.  For us, it’s typically energy conservation.

5. Assign responsibility. From the beginning, each project team member should understand their LEED responsibilities.  This includes the credits that they will be expected to complete and the data that they will need to collect either to support their own submittals or those of other team members.

6. Set deadlines. Hand-in-hand with assigning responsibility is the need to set deadlines.  I’ve spent countless hours in meetings where we’ve spun our wheels going down the LEED checklist, listening to consultants say “oh yeah, I need to get to that.”  Procrastination has consequences, and opportunities will be lost.  The following two points highlight the importance for the LEED-er to connect responsibilities with deadlines.

7. Fast-track the energy model. From my perspective, there is no component of the LEED process more important than the energy model, which quantifies the proposed building’s energy consumption and expresses savings in comparison with a baseline “to code” alternate.  If the energy model is prepared in a timely fashion, it serves as a powerful tool that enables the project team to understand the best opportunities for improving their design to save energy.  I’ve participated in meetings where hundreds of thousands of dollars of expected annual utility costs were shed, based on insights and scenarios from a timely energy model.  On the other hand, some of my greatest moments of frustration engaging in the design process have come from MEPs who drag their feet in preparing the building’s energy model.  In fact, with one project, the energy model was nearly a year late, so late that the building was already close to completion.  Any opportunity to use the energy model to improve the design had long since evaporated, and with it the chance to save significant money for the university.

The need for a timely energy model goes beyond just influencing the project’s design.  Up to 10 LEED points are available for energy conservation – potentially a sizable share of the final point total – and uncertainty over the number of anticipated energy conservation points makes estimating the project’s overall LEED point total and level of certification difficult.  On several projects, if we had known the results of the energy model sooner than we did, we might have targeted (and ultimately achieved) higher levels of LEED certification.  My conclusion is that there are numerous compelling reasons to fast-track the energy model (and conversely, no clear reasons not to).

8. Submit the design credits early. For a small fee, the USGBC allows project teams to submit design-related LEED credits early, and then follow-up with construction-related credits (and deferred design credits) at a later date.  I find this opportunity valuable for several reasons.  First, as many of the LEED prerequisites are design-oriented, if there are any potential problems with these mandatory credits, the issues will be identified early enough such that corrective action can be incorporated into the project’s construction.  Second, a two-stage submittal tends to prevent procrastination.  Rather, it has the effect of spreading the work more evenly across the project’s timeline.  Third, early knowledge of expected design credits adds certainty to the project’s final LEED outcome, and could even embolden a team to “stretch” for a higher goal.

9. Want it! Implementing the previous eight recommendations will in my view significantly improve the LEED process for a new building, but there’s still something missing here, and that’s setting the right tone.  You have to want it!  In my experience, there is a noticeable difference in the performance of the project teams that are genuinely enthusiastic about pursuing LEED certification and those who think it’s just one more requirement.  The university’s team members need to convey a consistent desire to achieve the project’s environmental goals, and likewise should choose those consultants who also demonstrate a similar attitude.  LEED can be fun with a motivated team, and a nightmare with those who would just as soon not be bothered.

With these nine lessons, hopefully we’ll have more of our campus sustainabilty professionals on cloud nine celebrating successful LEED projects.  Of course, no project is perfect, and problems always arise.  However, by carefully constructing the LEED process, the campus sustainabilty professional can at least ensure that when dark clouds appear, they’re more likely to have a silver (or gold, or platinum) lining.

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Inspiration From Afar

Posted on July 24, 2009. Filed under: sustainability | Tags: , , , , , , |

In this era of budget cutting, I’m regularly hearing from my fellow campus sustainability professionals that they’ve had to reduce or eliminate their travel.  I’m no exception.  The challenge then is to find opportunities to be inspired by the great thinkers and practitioners of the sustainability arena without actually leaving our campuses, for it’s often after attending these talks that we develop our own big ideas.

This past March, Rice University hosted an extraordinary conference entitled “Transforming the Metropolis: Creating Sustainable and Humane Cities” that featured many of the speakers whom we would hope to see as keynoters when we travel to conferences.  The talks from this conference are now available online and are posted below.  In lieu of actually going to a conference, consider blocking off time on your calendar, closing your email, unplugging your telephone, and allowing yourself the time to be inspired from afar (without the CO2 emissions from air travel!):

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Posted on June 16, 2009. Filed under: sustainability | Tags: , , |

Would you wash your hands with a fire hose?

Over the last few weeks I’ve been thinking about a significant source of energy waste, one that burdens utility budgets, frustrates maintenance personnel, and ultimately leads to building occupants who are either too hot or too cold, but never just right.  This pernicious source of energy waste is over-design.

Over-design of heating and cooling systems is hard for me to visualize.  I am admittedly at a disadvantage in this discussion as like most campus sustainability professionals I am not a mechanical engineer by training.  Or an HVAC technician.  Or a controls technician.  Or an architect.  Or a contractor.  In fact, if you are looking for an expert on the subject, you’ve come to the wrong place.

Yet, I’m increasingly on the look-out for over-designed mechanical systems.  In a recently completed project for Rice, the MEP (mechanical, electrical, and plumbing) engineering consultant originally recommended 2,000 tons of cooling.  An internal team from Rice whittled this down to 300 tons of cooling – an 85% reduction.  To date, the building’s actual consumption has not peaked above 40 tons, although it eventually will.  The difference between the original recommendation and the actual peak from operations to date is a factor of 50.  That’s over-design!  As a comparison, when we wash our hands under a sink, the stream of water is typically flowing at a rate of 2.5 gallons per minute.  If this were over-designed by a factor of 50, the flow rate would be 125 gallons per minute, which is typical for a fire hose.  So again I ask the question, would you wash your hands with a fire hose?  Certainly not, and no consultant would recommend that we do so.  But when it comes to energy, we’ll get the equivalent of a fire hose to wash our hands if we’re not careful.

Over-designed mechanical systems are bad for a number of reasons.  To name just a few, they cost more up-front, and then also to operate.  They operate inefficiently, far outside of their optimal ranges, which shortens the lifespan of the equipment.  They are difficult for maintenance people to control (imagine trying to adjust the flow on that fire hose to fill a cup of water without spilling!)  And when the systems are hard to control, space temperatures will either be too cold or too hot, and the building occupants will suffer as a result.

So what’s a campus sustainability professional to do?  As I’ve noted in other posts on this blog, we can’t be experts in everything, but we can bring the conversation to a fundamental level that enables us to partially overcome our lack of technical experience and play to our strengths.  Following are a few tips:

  • Enable the conversation. We operate horizontally in an organization of vertical silos.  Our job is all about making connections and facilitating communication between experts.  I recommend organizing one or several energy-focused conversations during the design of a new building.
  • Get the system in the room. Think carefully about the different voices and skill sets that need to be at the table.  From your institution, this may include one or several maintenance representatives, an energy manager, a project engineer, and a project architect.  From your consulting team, the MEP consultant, the LEED consultant, the design architect, and so forth.  The full range of stakeholders need to be present.
  • Gather benchmarking data. One of the best ways to ferret-out over-design is to gather operational data in either dollars per square foot or units of energy per square foot for comparable facilities.  If any of your campus buildings are individually metered (and hopefully most of them are!), then calculating annual energy consumption per square foot is easy and provides you with operational data for facilities that you can readily visualize.
  • Apply diversity factors. This is a big one, and often you’ll have to know to ask this question.  For certain facilities, designs are created assuming that everything is in a worst-case scenario, with additional factors of safety layered-in.  Suppose your consulting team is designing a laboratory with fume hoods.  For the sake of design, they are likely to assume that all labs are in full use at all times with all fume hoods opened to their 100% position. In reality, this simply does not happen.  It’s not that they’re designing the equivalent of a church parking lot for the Easter service.  It’s that they’re designing the church parking lot as if Christmas, Easter, and Palm Sunday all happen on the same morning, with additional spaces provided in the event that the church might double its size at some future date.  The diversity factor is a multiplier that enables for a more realistic sizing of mechanical systems in recognition that a “worst x worst x worst x safety factor” scenario just doesn’t happen.  Consultants will be hesitant to even suggest a diversity factor to apply; you’ll have to do this legwork on your own.
  • Set the parameters. The previous recommendations are often reactive.  In a sense, they’re a recipe for an intervention.  Ideally, you don’t want an intervention, you want right-sized systems as part of the original design.  One approach would be to gather benchmarking data prior to a project, establish a “do not exceed” figure for energy per square foot based on real operational data from your institution (or comparable), and then see if the consulting team has the discipline to stay at or below the target.

These steps will help the campus sustainability professional to orient a project team towards eliminating over-design.  As you step back to consider the system-wide impact of over-design, one on top of the other, from the upsizing of air handling units and pumps by a manufacturer’s salesperson to setting an excessive minimum number of air changes to assuming improper design temperatures to failing to apply diversity factors and on and on and on…. well, suddenly it’s not so hard to see why when it comes to energy, we do sometimes end up with the equivalent of washing our hands with a fire hose.  But as the era of cheap energy draws to a close, this will be one mistake that we simply cannot afford to keep making.

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Drop the Tray! (Trayless Dining: A Green Strategy for Lean Times)

Posted on April 13, 2009. Filed under: sustainability | Tags: , , , , , , , , |

In this turbulent economy, I don’t think I can name a single college or university that is not cutting costs. These next few years will be lean(er) times in higher education. However, one lesson that is clearly emerging is that campus sustainability efforts are not being treated as a luxury. In fact, many campus greening initiatives are really gaining momentum precisely because they can help improve a university’s bottom line.

One such initiative is trayless dining. I co-teach a course each fall where students use the campus as a laboratory for learning about sustainability, and as part of the class requirements they work on group projects to improve the environmental performance of the university. When a group of my students decided that they wanted to implement a trayless dining pilot project last September, we initially viewed the initiative as primarily an environmental measure. We would soon discover that dropping the tray opened the door to a much broader web of benefits.

The problem is straight-forward. In dining halls that feature all-you-can-eat meals, people tend to put more food on their trays than they actually eat. And why not? When taking an additional food item carries no extra cost to the student, the incentive is to over-consume. The result is that a noticeable quantity of food ends up in the trash, and it’s this visible display of waste bound for a landfill that will stir-up environmentally-minded students.

In 2005, a group of my students worked on an educational campaign to reduce food waste in a campus dining hall. Using a test and control site, they found that those students at the test site who were targeted with a campaign of waste reduction messages in fact reduced their plate waste by 30%, while the students at the control site showed no change. In their final report, the student group thoroughly detailed the upstream environmental impacts avoided by not wasting food, as well as the downstream landfill issues. Curiously, over the course of the entire semester, we all missed an obvious accomplice to these wasteful activities, and it could not have been more visible: the tray.

My students last fall hypothesized that by removing trays from a dining hall, students would be more careful about their food selections. This would decrease food consumption and waste, as well as the energy and water used to clean the trays and extra plates. However, while they felt they could prove their hypothesis, they feared student backlash and staff opposition. An educational campaign was one thing, taking away trays and changing the operations of a dining hall was quite another.

Fortunately, over the years the class has become a bit of a safe haven for experiments. With the promise of faculty oversight of student work, several administrators have become comfortable with letting students in the class test new ideas. And indeed, our Housing and Dining (H&D) personnel were quite supportive of a pilot trayless dining project. However, they worried about student opinion. To address this, the students on the project team met with the elected leaders of two residential college (dormitory) governments and proposed four lunchtime trayless dining pilots in their shared dining facility spanning a four week period that would be called “Wasteless Wednesdays.” The college governments agreed, and the project was a go.

The first test date brought a mixed reaction. With the student project team on-hand to gauge opinion, they found that almost half of the impacted students were wildly supportive of the trayless dining concept, another 40% were vehemently opposed to it, and the final 10% were completely apathetic. Those of you who work on a university campus will instantly recognize the tendency for students to react strongly or not at all.

Back in the kitchen, the H&D staff reported that plate waste had dropped 30% (the same amount as had been achieved by the educational campaign in 2005), and that the use of water, energy, and cleaning chemicals to wash plates and trays had dropped by almost 10%. They were intrigued. On a typical day in this particular dining hall, they would spend about $1000 per lunch period on food costs, not including the labor for preparation or associated utilities. What if they could reduce the amount of food that they needed to prepare? And not just for lunch, but for dinner and breakfast too (which together cost about another $1,000 per day just for the food)?

The following Wasteless Wednesdays yielded similar results. Student opposition began to wane as the project team continued to listen to the concerns of their fellow students and to work with the staff to take steps to address them, such as moving a supply of flatware out into the dining area so that students didn’t have to balance it on their plates or make a separate trip just to get a fork and knife.

Following the successful pilot project, Housing and Dining staff approached the Rice Student Association (the “SA” is our campus student government) to begin a dialog about implementing trayless dining at all Rice dining halls for all meals. The SA adopted a resolution in February supporting the measure, which was endorsed by our student newspaper, and in March the trays were removed from all dining halls. To date, I am aware of only one complaint resulting from trayless dining at Rice.

Several lessons are clear from our early efforts with trayless dining at Rice:

  • Experimentation! The ability to conduct a pilot project in a safe setting – through a class project – provided a level of comfort for both staff and students to engage in an experiment.
  • Communication! Students in the dining hall appreciated that their concerns were heard – and in some cases addressed – during the pilot project, and further our student government reacted favorably to being engaged in discussions about supporting trayless dining rather than simply being notified that it would happen.
  • Location! In any trayless dining effort, we have come to discover that the geography of the kitchen and dining hall are very important. The placement of flatware and drink dispensers for example can make trayless dining relatively easy or quite challenging.
  • Education! As David Orr wrote in his famed essay “What is Education For?”, faculty and students should work together to study the wells, farms, feedlots, mines, and forests that supply the campus, as well as the places where the wastes are discharged or dumped, and then should participate in the creation of real solutions to these real problems. Trayless dining is one such example. This was an opportunity to create a teaching moment while also fostering student leadership skills.

We have come to discover that removing the tray is akin to removing a keystone, unleashing a variety of benefits. In addition to those already discussed, there are additional energy and labor savings related to reducing the quantity of food to be cooked. Arguably, trayless dining also improves the health of students by discouraging over-eating. I continue to hear from students that they pay more attention to the food that they consume now that the trays are gone.

As universities continue to look for savings opportunities, our experience at Rice echoes what others have also discovered. That is, if you want to save money and improve the environmental performance of your campus dining hall, perhaps the biggest and easiest step to take is to drop the tray.

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The Day of Energy Policy

Posted on January 7, 2009. Filed under: sustainability | Tags: , , , , , , , , , |

Today was perhaps the biggest day ever for energy policy at Rice University. Famed Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens presented his vision for weaning the United States off of foreign oil to a packed auditorium on the Rice campus in the energy capital of the world, Houston. The thrust of the Pickens Plan features a significant investment in wind power (though curiously he hardly mentioned this at all in his talk), accompanied by a shift of natural gas away from electricity generation to use as a fuel for 18-wheelers and other large trucks (present battery technology won’t power these vehicles). True to Texan mythology, this is no small effort. Mr. Pickens has already spent $50 million to promote his plan; he intends to spend tens of millions more.

From my perspective, the visit by Mr. Pickens was not Rice’s lead energy policy headline for the day. That distinction is reserved for our university president, who sent an email to the entire Rice community announcing a Building Temperature Policy, outlining a series of tangible steps that members of our community can take to save energy, and calling for a broader culture of energy conservation on our campus. The Pickens event will garner media attention, enliven classroom discussions for the classes that attended, and perhaps even lead some students to focus their careers on energy. However, the Building Temperature Policy – as unglamorous as it sounds – is the real game changer.

Houston’s climate is quite similar to that of New Orleans or Tampa. That is, hot and humid. Air conditioning – providing relief from both the heat and humidity – was one of the technologies that enabled Houston (and the South for that matter) to grow into the major population and economic center that it is today. For years, locals used to boast that Houston was the “world’s most air conditioned city,” and anyone who has visited can attest that thermostats across this city are set to levels that are almost uncomfortably cold during our long, hot summers. It is not uncommon for women on our campus to wear sweaters indoors during the summer, and we even have instances where some employees use space heaters to counteract the aggressively cold air conditioning. We have taken a technology that has rendered our heat and humidity a mere inconvenience (rather than a threat to human life) and abused it. On our campus, air conditioning is our primary energy expenditure, and this is where we believe a lot of “low hanging fruit” can be found to cut our utility bills and reduce our carbon footprint.

In the 4+ years that I have worked as a campus sustainability professional, I have become involved in a variety of energy conservation efforts, from awareness campaigns to dorm energy competitions to design reviews to operational changes in facilities. There have been a number of successes along the way, mixed in with a healthy dose of frustrating moments (despite working with good, well-intentioned people). What I have come to conclude is that in absence of a comprehensive policy that outlines temperature settings, building hours, off-hour setbacks, and general expectations related to thermal comfort, we’d forever be acting in a piecemeal fashion, making adjustments here and there as time permitted, but never fully realizing the financial and environmental savings that would come with a comprehensive approach.

So why should it be so hard to create indoor conditions without a formal policy such that a worker doesn’t have to wear a sweater indoors when it’s 95 degrees and humid outside? In the absence of guidelines, the facilities personnel who actually set space temperatures are inclined to please their customers rather than conserve energy, and in doing so a space is often cooled to a level that satisfies the most heat-sensitive building occupant, as fewer people will complain about too much air conditioning than too little. Further, in the absence of guidelines, air conditioning schedules for buildings are gradually eroded as requests come in for off-hour (over-)cooling that are then never re-set, eventually leading to 24/7 over-cooling for an entire building. Facilities workers are busy and they want customers to be happy. If a customer demands that his office be cooled to 70 degrees instead of 76, why would the responding facility worker not make the change if no such policy existed to prevent it? And what if he took a conscientious stand and refused to make the change, but had no policy to fall back upon? That worker would likely be overruled.  And let us also not overlook that the customer, freed from the burden of paying their own energy bill in the workplace, will consume energy in ways that they wouldn’t dream of doing at home.

In his talk, Mr. Pickens made numerous references to the first 100 days of the Obama administration, and the need to enact a comprehensive national energy plan within that timespan. We’ll have our own first 100 days on campus as we begin rolling-out our building temperature policy, communicating with our campus community, and setting implementation processes and milestones. I see this as happening not a moment too soon. In this economic climate, universities need financial savings, and energy efficiency can be one of the ways to help keep universities strong. Imagine what even a 5% reduction in energy costs could do for your university? For us, that’s close to a million dollars. And rest assured that as soon as the economy recovers, the soaring energy prices that we witnessed in the first 8-9 months of 2008 will return.

This will be nothing compared to what’s further ahead. Quite chillingly, in his final remark during the question and answer session, Mr. Pickens noted in a rather off-hand way that we have perhaps 20-30 years worth of recoverable domestic natural gas reserves left, but that that’s enough of a bridge (and, in his view, the only available bridge) for us to cross as we race to develop new technologies to feed the energy demands of America. I suspect that crossing that bridge might take on the appearance of an Indiana Jones movie, as we race desperately to safety while the structure crumbles beneath our feet. Where does your campus’s power come from? We generate ours through natural gas fired cogeneration turbines, and we also purchase electricity from the grid that is generated in large part from natural gas. Clearly, we have long-term vulnerabilities and unavoidable challenges ahead. A building temperature policy is an important step, but ultimately each university will need to consider developing its own energy plan for the future. As Mr. Pickens joked, it’s better to be a fool with a plan than a genius with no plan at all.  Let’s hope that in academia, we’re geniuses with plans, because otherwise we’ll be nothing but planless fools.

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Post-Storm Lessons in Energy Planning (The Hurricane Ike Edition, Part 2)

Posted on October 13, 2008. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , |

Today marks the one month anniversary of Hurricane Ike. In Houston, the tree canopy is noticeably thinner, tarps still cover many roofs, and certain city services have been suspended to enable workers to focus on debris collection. However, life for most in this city is returning to normal. Galveston is another story altogether. To paraphrase an article in Sunday’s edition of the Galveston County Daily News, residents are experiencing a “new normal,” that is, something quite different than before. With only 60% of that city’s population back on the island, uncertainty about the future and an incomplete understanding of what just happened are the prevailing moods.

Over the past month, I’ve found myself thinking quite often about how the bonds of modern civilization are more fragile than I had suspected, and how the notion of sustainability fits into the equation. The hurricane in the financial markets has confirmed this sense of the society’s thin veneer, but I’ll focus my comments on meteorological hurricanes, not economic ones. I have identified a few lessons from Rice’s experience with Hurricane Ike that will hopefully enable other campus sustainability professionals to better plan for the provision of utilities and supporting infrastructure on their campuses, especially in the event of disasters.

At Rice, our campus imports both electricity and natural gas, the latter of which fires a combined heat and power system that produces electricity and steam. On a typical day, our central plant operators can vary the mix of inputs to produce our campus utilities, depending upon a variety of conditions including the cost of each source. During a crisis event when electricity is not available from the power grid, we are able to switch entirely to natural gas to provide heating, cooling, and power for our designated essential facilities on campus. The first lesson is that diverse energy systems create operating options and reduce the risk of disruption. Monocultures are vulnerable to exogenous shocks; variation reduces the susceptibility to catastrophic failure.

I should point out that it’s not just the multiple inputs that make the system diverse. At my home, I also import electricity and natural gas. The difference is that I cannot switch between sources to meet my basic needs. Natural gas doesn’t help me with refrigeration or cooling or lighting or power. If I owned a natural gas outdoor grill, I would at least be able to cook using a source other than my electric stove and oven (albeit this still requires different hardware – a grill). The fact is, natural gas only provides my home with hot water and heat, and the furnace will not operate without electricity. Despite the two energy sources, what I really have are two energy monocultures.

Energy system diversity is not enough, as Rice learned during the storm. The second lesson is that systems intersect. Rice’s energy system requires water to supply boilers, chillers, and the cooling tower. Without a reliable supply of water, our energy system cannot function indefinitely.

Rice purchases most of its water supply from the City of Houston, but we also have a water well on campus that in any given year meets up to 20% of our water needs. During an emergency, we can switch entirely to well water, an important illustration of the benefits of system diversity. However, during the storm, a power surge burned-out the motor of the pump on the water well, leaving Rice dependent upon City water. When the City’s pumping station at the Trinity River went down, water pressure dropped across Houston, threatening the availability of water and by extension energy on campus. The third lesson is that despite system diversity, the failure of a single component can cause the entire system – or several systems – to crash. Knowing what those weak points are, and understanding the conditions under which they might fail, will enable planning for a stronger system.

As an aside, with the threat of outages of both water and energy, and a replacement pump nowhere to be found, a member of Rice’s crisis management team contacted two alums in the oil services industry for help. They located a pump in Tennessee and arranged for it to be transported to Houston. Rice police met the delivery truck in Louisiana and provided an escort into Houston, and the pump was installed in just enough time to keep the campus energy system from crashing.

Rice admittedly has a level of independence from “the grid” that most of us do not enjoy at our homes. There are of course differing scales of energy independence. In political discussions, energy independence tends to mean not relying upon petro-dictators for oil. This kind of energy independence does little for reducing the energy monocultures that most of us live in today. In a previous post, I discussed the need to diversify our energy inputs while reducing our exposure to the fossil fuel operating system. The past month has taught me a fourth lesson, which is the need to drive energy independence to a localized level, especially for certain critical facilities.

I will illustrate the importance of this fourth lesson by providing an example of the first three. From a transportation perspective, most of Houston is a monoculture. In 1991, Joel Garreau wrote in Edge City: Life on the New Frontier that traveling around Houston without a car is like traveling around Venice without a boat. This over-reliance upon the automobile makes mobility in Houston especially vulnerable to exogenous shocks, such as hurricanes (a violation of lesson one). Without the reliable flow of gasoline, Houston shuts down. In the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, Houston faced a gasoline shortage. Many stations had run dry prior to the storm as motorists topped-off their tanks, but there’s more to the story. As we learned from lesson two, systems intersect. Gas stations need electricity, not just gasoline. Even those stations with gas in their underground storage tanks could not sell it because the pumps could not operate without electricity. The gas pumps were the critical component from lesson three that caused an entire system – several systems, actually – to crash. Until electricity was restored, a process that took many days and even weeks, gas stations were powerless to feed Houston’s gasoline-dependent transportation system.

Certainly facilities like hospitals are designed with a high degree of energy independence, and as I’ve discussed, our campus can function somewhat independently as well. But what about grocery stores and gas stations and banks? These are essential too. An entire gas station need not be able to function in the event of a power outage: just the pumps. An attendant could accept cash transactions and record credit card purchases through imprints. Had these pumps been designed to operate independent of the broader electrical grid, life in Houston would have recovered far more quickly than it did.

A more sustainable society in my view is one with a degree of decentralization and diversity that makes us less vulnerable to extreme events, which we are sure to see more of as our climate continues to change and as energy supplies tighten. For those planning in a campus environment, this suggests thinking about energy with some additional criteria in mind: avoiding monocultures, understanding where and how systems intersect, identifying critical points where failure can occur, and striving for localized energy independence. Many of us dream about being “off the grid” – able to meet our needs through renewable energy and sustainable water strategies on our own sites without depending upon the broader utility infrastructure and its inputs. But failure to take these lessons into account could mean that we’re “off the grid” in a different sense. That is, powerless.

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Questioning Assumptions

Posted on September 3, 2008. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , |

There are times when we stumble into our lessons.

A few years ago, when I was first getting my feet wet as a campus sustainability professional, I was unexpectedly called upon in the middle of a design meeting for a new building and asked to lead a conversation about energy efficiency. As my mind began to race, I found myself thinking that there was about 200 years of combined design and construction experience assembled at the table, and that I was without a doubt the least experienced of the group. My eyes must have been as wide as saucers.

I began by charting the rapid increase in energy costs to our university. I explained that every dollar spent on utilities is a dollar that can’t be spent on teaching, research, students, or any other aspect of the school’s educational mission. I encouraged the design team to make every effort to embed energy efficiency into the building’s design. It was a pep rally speech, and it was going nowhere.

I was grasping, so I asked the mechanical engineers to briefly explain their design to me. I have no background in mechanical engineering, and I struggled to follow their answer. I then asked a question that has since served me well: “Tell me about the assumptions that guided your design.”

I soon learned that the HVAC systems of buildings are designed to particular summer- and winter-time thresholds set by ASHRAE (the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers) using fifteen years of historical hourly weather data. The summer design temperature is the point that contains 99% of all of the hourly summer readings, meaning the threshold will only be exceeded 1% of the time, on average. Similarly, the winter design temperature is set at the 99% condition, with only 1 hour in every 100 falling below this bound during a typical winter.

For the project at hand, the upper bound was 97 degrees, which seemed reasonable enough. However, the design team reported that they were using a winter design temperature of 20 degrees. Suddenly, there was no doubt who in the room was from Houston and who was not.

I’ve lived in Houston for a combined 26 years. I remarked that I could probably count on one hand the number of times that the temperature has dropped below 20 degrees during those 26 years, and that’s probably true. The coldest month in Houston is January, where the average high is 63 degrees and the average low is 45. Since the beginning of record-keeping for such things, the temperature has never been colder than 10 degrees in January in Houston.[1] This year, the coldest recorded temperature in January was 33.8 degrees, and that happened twice. All told, we’ve only spent 44 hours this year to date below 40 degrees. In 2007, the mercury dropped below 40 degrees for a grand total of about 120 hours, with a minimum recorded temperature of 32. We haven’t had a single hour below freezing since early March of 2002.[2] That winter design condition of 20 degrees just did not seem right to the Houstonians in the room.

With a few minutes of pouring through design guides, we found that the appropriate winter design temperature for Houston as established by ASHRAE is either 29 degrees or 27 degrees, depending on the site location in the city. Even those values seemed low to us, but nevertheless far more reasonable than 20 degrees. Somewhere along the way, someone had padded an established standard with a significant “factor of comfort”.

So why does this even matter? The capacity of the HVAC equipment is designed in part to meet these conditions. We were over-designing for the winter, and doing so would cost us energy and money. We might not have ever uncovered this had we not questioned the design team’s assumptions.

With that issue resolved, we examined several other assumptions, and over the course of the meeting developed a series of proposed changes – most of which were adopted – that saved up-front equipment costs while slashing the building’s anticipated energy consumption by 15-20%. We weren’t sacrificing the functionality of the building – we simply were correcting a previously undetected over-design. Who knows how many we didn’t catch?!

A challenge for campus sustainability professionals is that we participate in so many different kinds of conversations with such a broad range of people that we can’t be experts in everything. There are going to be moments – perhaps many – when we are the least experienced people in the room. Bringing the conversation to a fundamental level enables us to partially overcome the experience gap, to start to play to our strengths, and to make constructive comments. This is such a young profession that we’re all climbing the learning curve together. I’d be interested to know if others have similar tips to share. We need all the lessons we can get!

[2] Temperature data drawn from the Bayland Park weather station, located at the corner of Hillcroft and Bissonnet in southwest Houston. Data available online at

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Oil on the Brain

Posted on August 19, 2008. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , |

Summer is a time for vacations and reading lists. Certainly if you live in a hot and humid climate as I do (Houston), the thought of not escaping at least for a few days with a pile of books to a place with cool breezes would be soul-crushing. This summer, one of the stops on my itinerary was Portland, Oregon, a city that offers not only one of the best book stores in the world – Powell’s Books – but also the chance to experience lows in the 50s without having to wait until Halloween.

On the flight back to Houston, which clocks in at four hours on a good day (and this was not to be a good day), I finally admitted to myself that I have a new obsession. My reading on the flight was James Howard Kunstler’s The Long Emergency, a grim portrait of the hardships that modern civilization might face as production rates for fossil fuels enter a sharp decline “sooner than we think.” I had just finished reading his novel World Made By Hand, a fascinating piece of speculative fiction created as an outgrowth of The Long Emergency. In my carry-on bag were several purchases from Powell’s, including Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, which quite literally envisions the Earth without humans; Oil, Upton Sinclair’s tale of social injustice and corruption in the early years of the oil industry in southern California that inspired the recent movie There Will Be Blood; and finally the journalistic wide-angle snapshot of the petroleum supply chain that gives title to my new obsession, Lisa Margonelli’s Oil On the Brain. Yes, I have oil on the brain, and it seems to be sticking to all of my thoughts.

As our flight approached Houston’s Intercontinental Airport, we entered into a holding pattern above the city, waiting for an opening in the heavy thunderstorms that were drenching the city so that we could make our landing. After a short while, the pilot announced that the flight was being diverted to Beaumont, Texas, as we were almost out of fuel. I spent quite a bit of time chewing on the symbolism of running out of fuel above the world’s energy capital, Houston, and needing to top-off in the city whose Spindletop oil well gave birth to the modern petroleum industry, Beaumont. The question on my mind at that moment was how much longer will we as a society be able to figuratively top-off in Beaumont every time we need more fuel?

Rice’s late Nobel Laureate, Professor Richard Smalley, wrote in an article published in 2005 that “at some point, almost certainly within this decade, we will peak in the amount of oil that is produced worldwide. Even though there will be massive amounts of oil produced for the rest of the century, the volume will never again reach the amount produced at its peak. This year, 2005, might very well end up being the historic date of that global peak.”[1] Earlier this summer, Houston energy investment banker Matthew R. Simmons, Chairman of Simmons & Company and author of Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy, told an audience in Maine that he believes that global oil production peaked in May 2005, which coincidentally was the exact month that his book was published. Simmons captures the gravity of this message by sharing a quote from a late Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of Dubai who observed “my grandfather rode on a camel, my father rode in a car, I ride in a jet, my children will ride in cars, and my grandchildren will ride on camels.”[2]

If only this were an oil problem, I might not be quite so worried. Automobile fleets can transition to hybrids, then plug-in hybrids, and finally to all-electric sources; natural materials can be employed as substitutes in the making of certain plastics; etc. However, our prospects for natural gas, coal, and even uranium are all troubling. Consider for a moment the fact that some experts believe that Chinese production of coal will peak in the middle of the next decade, followed by a sharp decline. What happens to a world economy that has exported its manufacturing infrastructure and acumen to a country that will soon have to rely heavily on coal imports in order to power its factories (remembering that shipping the coal requires oil, which will be about a decade post-peak by that point)?

Let me state the obvious by saying that the operating system of our society is fossil fuels. We already know what happens when this operating system crashes temporarily. In the fall of 2005, when my family and I joined 2.5 million of our fellow Houstonians attempting to flee then Category-5 Hurricane Rita in the largest urban evacuation in U.S. history, we collectively sucked gas pumps dry across virtually all of southeast Texas. Many of us lacked the fuel for the grueling bumper-to-bumper 24-hour drive to Dallas (a trip that usually takes 4 hours), and had to return to Houston, hoping that the storm would veer away at the last minute (it did, much to the chagrin of our neighboring cities to the east). We felt trapped and powerless. And who can forget how quickly New York City descended into chaos in 1977 during the famed blackout? While that electricity outage was not caused by a lack of fossil fuels, it does illustrate how an interruption in the fossil fuel operating system can trigger a social collapse. Fortunately, in both instances, the fossil fuel operating system was quickly rebooted, and modern life returned to normal. In the coming years, crashes may become more frequent, and reboots more challenging.

As a campus sustainability professional, I’ve been grappling (somewhat unsuccessfully) with how to prepare my campus for this changeover in operating systems. We know the fossil fuel operating system will eventually start crashing (perhaps sooner rather than later), but we also know that the upgrade, which I’ll call the renewable energy operating system, is still in development and not even close to being ready for a complete and economical replacement of the fossil fuel operating system at this time. So we’re in limbo, and we’re at risk.

This challenge is not as easy as just switching power purchases from coal to wind sources. Here in Texas, we have the option to choose our power provider, and thus the option to choose how our power is generated. But even if my university were to purchase only wind power, the actual electrons entering our campus grid would probably be from the nearby coal-fired power plant. In fact, despite being the national leader in wind power production, most of the Texas power mix is still generated from a blend of natural gas and coal-fired sources, along with some nuclear, and a 2-3% contribution from wind. As that fossil fuel operating system becomes unstable, the state’s entire power grid will be vulnerable. And I say the state’s grid because Texas for the most part is an island when it comes to the national power grid. What’s generated in Texas stays in Texas.

Thinking beyond the campus, I believe that broadly speaking we should be minimizing our exposure to the fossil fuel operating system, diversifying our energy inputs so that the entire system does not crash when one source declines, developing our renewable energy operating system as quickly as possible, preparing for a rapid switch-over once the new operating system is ready to be launched, and where applicable designing for cross-compatibility of operating systems as a transitional strategy. If the decline of fossil fuels is gentle enough, and the development of renewable energy rapid enough, the modern world might not even take notice. However, if the converse is true, and if we have not appropriately re-organized our society and re-adjusted our lifestyles, we could be facing the end of modern life as we know it.

As our plane sat on the tarmac in Beaumont during our refueling stop, a violent storm cell moved across the airport, rocking our plane back and forth with high winds. As soon as the storm passed, the pilot was cleared for take-off, and subsequently flew right into the storm, resulting in the most harrowing ten minutes of in-flight turbulence that I have ever experienced before we finally reached the clearing skies above Houston. I couldn’t help but wonder whether the flight itself was a metaphor for the bumpy ride that we’re to encounter as we transition from our fossil fuel operating system to one based on renewable energy sources. Will we make it?

As if that flight didn’t provide enough symbolic fodder for my wandering mind, as we drove away from the airport we encountered a surprising message on an electronic highway message board on U.S. 59: “Tropical storm in Gulf: Fill-up gas tanks”. Oil on the brain indeed.

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An Hour Well Spent

Posted on July 16, 2008. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , |

Our new fiscal year at Rice began on July 1, and with it, a new reality of energy prices that have blown a multi-million dollar hole in our budget. Like many of you I’m sure, we’re now drafting a campus energy policy, we’re identifying and implementing various energy conservation measures, and we’re preparing a set of proposed conservation projects for the next capital budget cycle. Running parallel is the effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to draft a climate action plan. Sound familiar?

Not long ago, being the standard-bearer for sustainability meant flying into a strong headwind. My observation is that the winds shifted direction for many of us over the past couple of years, and we’re instead being propelled by a robust tailwind. We’re now awash in opportunities, and yet ours is such a young profession that we’re still learning how to run campus sustainability offices and how to function effectively in our roles. With so many of us in similar places on the learning curve, we are quite fortunate when we can tap the knowledge of one of our few counterparts that has actually been working in this business for a decade or more.

One of the true leaders in energy conservation in higher education is Walter Simpson, the University Energy Officer for University at Buffalo, in the SUNY system. Walter was the featured speaker in a recent free APPA Webinar entitled “Reducing Greenhouse Gases & Achieving Climate Neutrality” that originally streamed on June 18, 2008. In his talk, he presented twenty “programmatic ingredients” as part of a “recipe for success” for saving energy and cutting greenhouse gas emissions, many of which were discussed in-depth, with valuable lessons offered. The presentation is still accessible online (click here). If you too are engaged in the twin efforts of energy conservation and greenhouse gas reductions, do consider devoting a quiet hour of time to learn from Walter’s experiences.

Afterwards, explore the web site of the playfully-named UB Green office, including their You Have the Power energy conservation campaign. Finally, give some serious thought to what it means to have saved a university over $100 million in cumulative energy costs – and the associated emissions and environmental impact prevented – as Walter has done. If AASHE ever develops an award for lifetime achievement for campus sustainability professionals, my nomination for first recipient would be Walter Simpson.

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