Low-energy settings over break prompt savings

Cost-centric shutdowns lead to some energy efficiency.

by Hailey Colwell

University of Minnesota junior Molly Weaver noticed no change in heating or lighting in the silent Social Sciences building where she worked over winter break.

Weaver, who managed the front desk, said though few people passed through, the building operated at full energy.

 “Everyone’s still acting as though there are people in [the buildings],” she said.

Though many students and staff members left the University over the holidays, the campus itself stayed open for most of the break.

Lights stayed on and the heat roared in many buildings, but University Facilities Management officials said efforts are made each year to save energy and cut costs over break.

“The University really never sleeps,” said Jim Green, assistant director of Facilities Engineering.

Green said while classrooms and offices are shut down over break, residence halls and buildings used for research need to be kept running for safety reasons.

“A lot of people are surprised that we can’t just shut everything off except for a few lights and call it good.”

Facilities Management cut energy costs during the University’s official closing days — Dec. 24 and 25 — by powering the campus to the lower energy settings used on Sundays, Green said.

About $8,700 on electricity and about $8,300 on steam power were saved across the Twin Cities campus on those closure days compared to Dec. 31 and Jan. 1 — two days when the campus was open.

The campus was also set to Sunday mode Monday for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Green said. Besides these three days, the campus ran normally over break.

Residential efforts

University residence halls were heated over break to prevent water pipes from bursting, Green said.

Though residents had no control over heat levels, Facilities Management and Housing and Residential Life made efforts to save electricity by educating residents on sustainability through the “Live Green Games.”

For the December challenge, students were encouraged to unplug everything in their rooms, close windows and defrost refrigerators before leaving campus, said Chris Kelleher, Facilities Management spokesman.

Half of the University’s 10 residence halls were completely closed over break, Kelleher said.

Facilities Management estimated a 37 percent decrease in residence hall electricity use from Dec. 21 to Jan. 21, compared to a month-long period during the semester, he said.

While it’s difficult to determine how much of these savings came from sustainability initiatives, Kelleher said a large part of these savings were attributed to fewer students living in the residence halls over break.

“With people not being here, they’re not using their electricity, so you gain a little bit there,” he said.

Elsa Gaikwad, a community advisor in Middlebrook Hall, said she saw  students turning off lights in public areas consistently and filling out the winter break conservation checklist.

“The students have been very receptive to it,” said the psychology graduate student, who stayed in the building over break.

Cross-conference energy

Other Big Ten universities have similar energy policies to the University.

At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, academic buildings automatically turn to weekend status over break, said Kirk Conger of the university’s Facilities Management and Planning.

Conger said Nebraska shut down the campus from Dec. 22 to Jan. 1, saving an estimated $35,000.

“You’d think it should be a lot more,” Conger said, but he said the buildings that have energy levels turned down over break use much less energy than research labs and other facilities that remain running.

“The buildings we shut down are our lowest energy users to start with,” he said.

Much like the University of Minnesota, the University of Wisconsin-Madison stays open for most of winter break, said Faramarz Vakili, the university’s sustainability director.

The campus also turns to conservation mode when buildings aren’t occupied. Vakili said more than 65 percent of the university’s energy usage has nothing to do with how many people are there.

Power priorities

In December 2010 and January 2011, the University shut down for 10 days, saving an estimated $10,000 per day in energy costs, Green said.

The closure included a three-day furlough, during which some University employees were forced to take unpaid time off. Green said the University is unlikely to have another shutdown of this length without a savings incentive like salary cuts.

“The real savings were in the payroll,” he said. “The energy was just a little decoration on the cake. It wasn’t even the frosting.”

Though Facilities Management will continue its conservation efforts, Green said any change isn’t likely to be major.

“We only want to save energy if people don’t notice it,” Green said. “Anybody can save energy by making people uncomfortable. We want to do it smarter than that.”