High energy bills hit U

Than Tibbetts

Increasing energy costs have led to penny pinching at the gas pump and the potential for a home-heating crisis in Minnesota this winter.

Now the rising costs could affect tuition.

The Board of Regents last week approved a $14.6 million supplemental request to the state to help combat the effects of increasing energy costs.

University officials presented their troubles at a state Senate committee hearing Thursday about the larger plight of the state’s energy conundrum.

For the purposes of comparison, next year’s tuition increase ” slated to be 6.5 percent ” would need to be heightened to a 9.5 percent increase, just to cover the cost of fuel.

Richard Pfutzenreuter, the University’s chief financial officer, stressed there is no plan to increase tuition further. But, he said, it wouldn’t be out of the question, along with budget cuts and a reduction in other University initiatives, if the energy and budget problems persist.

He said the University is focusing on how to “buy smarter,” specifically by purchasing fuel in advance to take advantage of lower prices.

For example, the price per unit of natural gas has nearly quintupled, from $3.12 in June 2003 to $14.67 today, according to University officials.

Pfutzenreuter added that the University has done enough in trying to change behavior on its campuses, such as turning off lights in laboratories overnight.

The future isn’t all dark, though. Despite the addition of new high-tech buildings over the years, the University has actually reduced its energy consumption per square foot of building space, said Mike Berthelsen, assistant vice president of University Services.

The University produces 2 trillion pounds of steam each year to heat and cool the Twin Cities campuses alone. Across the state, the University operates more than 28 million square feet of space ” enough to open more than 11 Mall of Americas.

Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, said perhaps the University should be looked to for leadership in reducing energy costs.

“I certainly wouldn’t want to see tuition go up 3 percent because of energy costs,” she said.

Pappas heads the Higher Education Budget Division Committee, which reviews state funding of higher education institutions, including the University.

She added that the committee will take a longer look at any money the state appropriates for renovations at higher education institutions in Minnesota.

The Senate committee also heard testimony from speakers representing seniors, the working poor and lower-income Minnesotans who are facing a financial crunch with the coming of winter.

Sen. Ellen Anderson, DFL-St. Paul, said the committee hopes Gov. Tim Pawlenty will call a special session to provide heating and energy assistance to Minnesotans in need.

“We need to make sure everyone in Minnesota is able to make it through the winter without being left out in the cold,” she said.