University greener than ever

The University is addressing its energy needs to become a leader in sustainability.

by Mike Berthelsen

ItâÄôs great to hear some interesting new perspectives and challenging ideas in the ongoing discussion of energy use at the University of Minnesota. ItâÄôs an important topic for the University; we have two steam plants âÄî one in Minneapolis and one in St. Paul âÄî that provide heating and cooling and co-generate about 5 percent of the electricity needed for the UniversityâÄôs 24-million-square foot campus. Obviously, the steam plants are vital to the operation of the University and to the highly sensitive research done 24 hours a day, every day of the year. Our steam plants are powered with a diverse source of fuel including natural gas, fuel oil, oat hulls, wood and coal. One important thing to remember is that the most common fuel source used in the steam plants is natural gas. ThatâÄôs right, 70 percent of our fuel is natural gas, not coal. In fact, our operating permit says that coal canâÄôt make up more than 30 percent of our fuel source. ThatâÄôs a big change from the late 1990s when coal comprised nearly all of the fuel used in our steam plants. But the University has changed significantly since then. We are moving away from coal as a primary fuel source. We updated our steam plants and they now include highly efficient boilers that produce more steam using the same amount of fuel. And weâÄôve added state-of-the-art pollution-control equipment designed to reduce the impact on local air quality. The results have been impressive: While the Twin Cities campus has grown by more than 2 million square feet over the past decade, weâÄôve reduced our utility carbon footprint and other air pollutants. In addition to changes in the steam plant, weâÄôve asked the members of the University community to do their part to conserve energy. YouâÄôve heard it before, but the greenest energy is the energy thatâÄôs never used. ThatâÄôs why we launched the âÄúIt All Adds UpâÄù energy conservation campaign last April. In less than a year, almost 11,000 students, faculty and staff have pledged to do their part in conserving energy by doing simple things like turning off the lights. Facilities Management also began an aggressive project last year to recommission 40 buildings per year for energy efficiency. Just as a tune up can improve a carâÄôs fuel economy, recommissioning can improve a buildingâÄôs energy efficiency by up to 15 percent. In addition, we started the ECO Team, a multi-unit task force determined to identify and implement energy reduction ideas across all University operations. The ECO Team rolled-out their first initiative in 2009: a green computing pilot that could save the University $40 per machine annually. Thanks to the hard work and commitment of each and every member of the University community, weâÄôve already reached our goal of reducing Twin Cities Campus energy consumption by 5 percent, saving more than $2.25 million annually and reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 25,000 tons. All of this and I havenâÄôt even mentioned the UniversityâÄôs membership in the Chicago Climate Exchange, the UniversityâÄôs hybrid buses, the LEED Silver Certification of TCF Bank Stadium, the cutting edge research underway in our labs and classrooms, and dozens of other efforts underway to reduce energy usage. But just because I havenâÄôt mentioned it doesnâÄôt mean the efforts arenâÄôt noticed. This year, the Sustainable Endowments Institute gave the University an A in the categories of energy and climate. We also received an overall grade of A-, one of only 27 schools nationwide and the only school in the Big Ten to receive that grade. Despite the UniversityâÄôs progress in recent years and despite the commitment and leadership by the Board of Regents and President Bob Bruininks, there will still be some who argue itâÄôs not enough. While itâÄôs easy to say that the University should use greener energy sources like wind, solar power or oat hulls, itâÄôs not that simple. First, a reliable source of energy is critical to the operation of an institution of this size and complexity. We need to keep the lights on and the buildings warm in labs, classrooms and residence halls. Right now, Xcel Energy cannot provide enough wind power to meet our electrical needs. Oat hulls and wood are in limited supply and as other power suppliers use them, the cost has risen substantially. Second, the diversity of fuel sources allows us to be flexible and to be more cost effective. A diverse fuel mix protects the University against shortages of any one particular type of fuel and allows us to negotiate cheaper prices. To keep our natural gas rates down, the University agrees to have gas supplies curtailed at certain peak demand times, during which the University burns more fuel oil so natural gas will be available to other customers. So where are we and where are we heading? We are committed to seeking feasible and more sustainable energy options. In keeping with the Board of RegentâÄôs sustainability policy and as a signatory of the PresidentâÄôs Climate Commitment, the University will be taking a comprehensive look at how we can become a more sustainable institution. WeâÄôll be looking at how to meet the energy demands of our growing campus, where we can make improvements in purchasing and transportation and how we can increase reusing and recycling on campus. Bruininks is appointing both system-wide and campus specific sustainability committees that will include students, faculty and staff. They will help draft climate action plans to look at these issues. Based on their findings, the University will craft an overall plan to help us reach our commitments. These recommendations will shape the future of the University for decades to come, so itâÄôs important that we proceed systematically through the process. ItâÄôs critical for the University to provide the reliable energy that powers the teaching, research and service of this great institution. WeâÄôve seen some impressive successes over the past decade and look forward to the possibilities of the future. Mike Berthelsen Facilities Management associate vice president