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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    Insights and observations on the campus greening movement, from the perspective of a campus sustainability professional

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