UMN flips the switch on climate action

The University aims to reduce emissions through a number of methods, such as switching to energy-efficient lightbulbs on campus.

Sophomore Bradley Hartwyk works on an assignment in Walter Library on Friday, Oct. 26. The University's decision to transition lights to LEDs in heavy-traffic buildings is one initiative driven by its goal of eliminating 100 percent of carbon emissions by 2050. 

Mrunal Zambre

Sophomore Bradley Hartwyk works on an assignment in Walter Library on Friday, Oct. 26. The University’s decision to transition lights to LEDs in heavy-traffic buildings is one initiative driven by its goal of eliminating 100 percent of carbon emissions by 2050. 

Natalie Rademacher

Most students who spend time in Walter Library have probably not noticed that the building’s light fixtures have been converted to energy-efficient light bulbs ⁠— even the chandeliers. To reduce how much energy the University of Minnesota uses, light bulbs on campus are being converted to more energy-efficient bulbs. 

Since the University’s plan to offset 100 percent of its emissions was announced in 2011, the University has reduced around 37 percent of its carbon emissions through initiatives that reduce energy demand on campus, such as switching to different lights. The University hopes to reduce its emissions by half by the end of 2020.  

Over the past five years, University Energy Management has been converting lights around campus to bulbs that use less energy. Jay Amundson, a senior manager for Energy Management, predicts it will be another five years before the project is completed. 

He said switching out every light on a campus with around 240 buildings is a time-consuming process. 

Along with switching to more energy-efficient light bulbs, Energy Management is also installing systems that reduce how much lighting and energy is used on campus.

This includes motion-activated lights that turn on and off automatically and dim to adapt to outside lighting. Energy Management is also installing systems around campus that allow heating and air conditioning to go into standby and rest mode, reducing the amount of work the systems are doing at night and when people are not in a room.

The low-hanging fruit 

Dave Grupp, head of Renewable Energy Services for Direct Energy Business, an energy-related service provider, said doing something like converting light systems is tackling the low-hanging fruit in an effort to reduce emissions. 

It is a fairly simple process that can result in some dramatic savings, he said. 

Amundson said the energy and long-term financial savings from switching to LED lighting is enormous.

The Jones Hall project

Through a grant by the US Department of Energy, Jones Hall on campus is undergoing an energy makeover. 

When a person walks into a classroom in Jones Hall, a switch is needed to turn the lights on, but lights will turn off automatically when there is no one in a room. If it is a bright, sunny day, the lights will dim automatically to fit with the outside lighting. 

The air conditioning and heating system works in a similar fashion. While people are in a room, the system maintains the desired temperature.  

The grant is for a study looking at how much these initiatives can reduce energy use in the building. Amundson said he expects the project is reducing 30 to 50 percent of the energy in Jones Hall.

Energy Management decided to roll out the project in Jones Hall because it is one of the smaller campus buildings, and having University Admissions in the building allows the University to show prospective students and parents how the school is managing energy.

Next steps

While the project in Jones Hall is helping reduce emissions, it will be a while before similar systems can be installed across the entire campus.

High costs and time are the two biggest restraints around reducing emissions at the University, Amundson said.

Within five to 10 years, Amundson predicts pricing will go down, similar to how the cost of LED lighting has gone down as demand for it has increased. 

“Pricing will come down, we are just ahead of the curve,” he said. 

With these easier initiatives underway, University engineers, technicians and faculty are assessing what steps to take to help reduce the other two-thirds of the emissions emitted by the University. 

Campuses are great test beds to implement innovations because they are like little cities and can implement their own networks and monitoring systems, said Sally Benson, director for the Precourt Institute for Energy at Stanford University.

She said that for students, being able to experience and participate in decision-making and be a part of these efforts to reduce emissions can be inspiring and give them hope to deal with these issues.