It's Not Easy Being Green

Though accounting for only five percent of the planet’s population, Americans consume 26 percent of the world's energy, according to the American Almanac (as found on the Solar Energy International Webpage). The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that an average of 16M tons of carbon dioxide are emitted into the environment every 24 hours by human activity worldwide. Environmental effects of this consumption shouldn’t be ignored, and the economic impact simply can’t.

“A colleague of mine’s daughter was interviewing for college and the first question she asked was, ‘what is your school’s green philosophy?’” said Lisa Raffin, vice president of professional services, VFA, Inc. Schools that don’t take energy conservation into account will not only pay more for power, they will potentially lose tuition income.

That’s where VFA comes in. “We help schools increase their triple bottom line,” she said, touting the interplay between the environmental, financial, and social benefits of greening a campus. The organization can help estimate the costs and benefits of potential sustainability investment, determine where to focus green dollars for the greatest impact, and integrate sustainability programs into the capital planning process.

“Higher education often leads the way for new practices, and most schools already have a sustainability program well underway,” Raffin reported. “However, they often focus on new construction. There are lots of opportunities to green their existing building stock. There may be buildings from the 1940s through the 1960s where some major savings prospects are overlooked.”

Look for Opportunities
Some of these practices promise an almost immediate payoff. Lighting represents one of those low-hanging fruit opportunities. Installing occupancy sensors and installing energy efficient bulbs and ballasts all offer a payback in one to two years. More extensive lighting retrofits offer bigger paybacks but they cost more upfront.

Water conservation represents another simple retrofit idea that VFA offers to its clients. “This is a simple way to save resources and claim a quick payback,” said Raffin. Replacing traditional fixtures with low-flow or dual-flush toilets and moving to waterless urinals comprise one way to get immediate savings. Restroom controls like automatic sensors on faucets or flow restrictors on showerheads offer another opportunity.

Sometimes energy savings come in the most unlikely of packages. One university implemented an economizer on beverage machines across its campus. Infrared sensors were installed on the vending machines, allowing them to automatically power down the equipment when there was no traffic (typically at night). The machines powered back up when the foot traffic returns during the day. A simple idea with a big payout; the vending misers saved approximately $140 per machine per year. Multiply that by the campus’s 120 machines and the savings proves significant: $17,000 per year.

Recommissioning for Savings
Recommissioning a building represents another savings opportunity that offers an almost immediate payback. The initial price, however, is somewhat steep. “While it costs about six dollars a square foot to recommission a building, schools can expect a payback in one to two years,” said Raffin. “However, it is a prerequisite if a structure is to be awarded an existing building LEED certification.”

Recommissioning is basically a tune-up of an existing building’s works, especially the HVAC, mechanical, and electrical systems. Recommissioning optimizes how equipment and systems operate as well as how systems function together. “Recomissioning is not a substitute for major repair work,” according to the Natural Resources Canada Website. “In fact, repairing major problems must be done prior to recomissioning.”

Cogeneration Plants

For schools looking to do something bigger, VFA points to the notable efforts to evolve towards cogeneration plants. This is where the central plant generates electrical and thermal power simultaneously by utilizing the waste heat from a gas turbine to generate steam. Cogeneration is a major investment in both effort and capital; however, the payback can be more than savings. “The universities we worked with that added a cogeneration plant now sell power back to the surrounding community,” reported Raffin. “It’s become a profit center for the school.”

Green Spaces
Some schools are looking to their actual green spaces to be greener. Raffin reports a big shift in thinking about beautification. “Universities used to really push to look good a few important weeks during the year,” she said. “Now there seems to be a lot of pride in their sustainable landscaping, including stormwater management, native habitat, to even integrated pest management. I was recently at an event at MIT and there were pamphlets pointing out their various gardens. It was a subtle message for sure, but it shows a shift in thinking about the outdoor spaces, particularly for an urban campus.”