First U building gets Energy Star rating while labs lag

The University of Minnesota is shifting to more digital methods to conserve energy, while some labs eat up disproportionate amounts of energy.

Kathryn Elliott

Donhowe Building occupants took just a ten-minute cookie break on Monday to celebrate five months of energy improvements and a year of waiting to be the first University of Minnesota facility to receive an Energy Star rating.

The building, home to University offices for capital planning, facilities management and human resources, ranks nationally in the top 12 percent of energy efficient buildings its size and class. But itâÄôs in stark contrast to high-tech research facilities on campus that use far more energy.

No Twin Cities research buildings have received such energy awards or third-party certifications. Energy Star doesnâÄôt have a category for rating college research buildings, said Jim Green, assistant director of facilities engineering at the University.

That doesnâÄôt mean labs are ignored when it comes to efficiency, said Amy Short, sustainability director for Facilities Management.

âÄúWe still spend a ton of time working on research buildings,âÄù she said. âÄúItâÄôs not like lab buildings get a free pass.âÄù

Research buildings built after 2009 in Minnesota are expected to use about four times as much energy per square foot as office buildings do, according to statewide legislative standards. Kolthoff Hall, a lab facility, used ten times as much energy as the Donhowe Building did in the past year.

Generally, research buildings require more energy because air must be re-circulated, heated and cooled. These processes make up about 70 percent of energy use in campus buildings. In certain labs, air must be exchanged with fresh, outside air up to 20 times an hour for safety reasons, Green said.

Melissa Maurer-Jones, a chemistry graduate fellow, spends about 50 hours a week in Kolthoff Hall.

She said large fume hoods direct toxic waste out of the lab continuously and require a lot of electricity because of long-term experiments.A typical research fume hood consumes up to $3,500 of energy a year and produces up to 30 tons of CO2, according to the UniversityâÄôs âÄúIt All Adds UpâÄù website.

Still, the UniversityâÄôs sustainability purchasing policy states that whenever the option is available, efficient lab equipment like Energy Star-rated refrigerators and freezers should be selected.

A University sustainability committee plan to be published this summer highlights lab strategies like sharing freezer space and limiting fume hood energy waste by closing them when work is done, Short said.

These changes depend on the cooperation of researchers and personnel that donâÄôt necessarily prioritize energy efficiency.

Like many of her colleagues, Maurer-Jones purchases large lab equipment a few times a year, looking more for data collection efficiency than for energy efficiency.

âÄúThis is the first time IâÄôve ever thought about using energy-efficient lab instruments,âÄù she said. âÄúI think there needs to be a change in culture about the energy efficiency of the equipment we use.âÄù

Jerome Malmquist, director of Energy Management, said he agrees that some equipment is not made with energy efficiency in mind.

âÄúHow do you buy an energy-efficient MRI?âÄù he said. âÄúYou donâÄôt. They are what they are.âÄù

In contrast, Energy Management employees found easy fixes for some of Donhowe building’s inefficiencies and foibles. One improvement was to install sensors on bathroom lights that originally would stay on when the room was unoccupied. They also repaired exhaust fans that rotated backwards and reset air flow to prevent excessive flow to the elevators and lobbies.

Acknowledging that research-intensive buildings require more complex ventilation, the UniversityâÄôs Energy Management staff has done recommissioning studies in virtually all of them, Green said.

Energy efficiency projects have been conducted in the Mayo Memorial Building, Moos Tower, Nils Hasselmo Hall, the Molecular and Cellular Biology building and others.

Energy Management also works with the University’s Department of Environmental Health and Safety to employ strategies such as heat recovery: using the heat contained in building exhaust air to preheat air being supplied to other buildings.

On occasion, Energy ManagementâÄôs role is limited by the requirements of the researchers themselves.

âÄúWeâÄôre not allowed to touch the research equipment âÄî we get slapped if we get too close,âÄù Malmquist said.