Universities = Energy Wasters?

Have you ever wondered how much energy is wasted on campus?  I think we can all agree that universities are BIG and need A LOT of energy to keep the lights on, heat and cool buildings, provide power to laboratory equipment, etc.  But what about those occasional inefficiencies we see in a classroom or in a lab?  Do they really amount to much?

According to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, these inefficiencies can really add up.  The University of Pennsylvania has started looking for these inefficiencies and found a few issues.  For example: a set of side-by-side fans where one was wired backwards (i.e. one was blowing air and one was sucking it in).  This led to the downstream fans spending more energy to make up the difference.  Another issue was building systems operating as if there were occupants 24 hours a day, 7 days a week (which was not true).  There can be significant savings if the energy systems of a building are set at a lower level while no one is in the building.  Imagine having a utility bill on the order of tens of millions of dollars… then think of how much you could save by reducing energy usage by only 5%.

As is stated in the article, during times of tight budgets, universities may make the decision to build with cheaper materials or cheaper systems in order to save money in the short term.  But these choices can be costly in the long term when considering energy efficiency.  It is important to keep the long term in mind when building or maintaining the infrastructure of the university.

I was curious about Virginia Tech’s current efforts to reduce energy waste, so I looked around and found its “Energy and Utilities” page.  This webpage describes the university’s energy consumption,  energy reduction plan, and “Five Year Energy Action Plan”.  VT’s position is unique, in that it has its own power plant which provides energy to the university and the surrounding community.  As part of the energy action plan, the university identified 50 buildings (about 35% of campus grounds) that were consuming about 70% of the energy used on the Blacksburg campus (!!).  The plan is estimated to save approximately $4.5 million during the 5 year plan.  I am glad that the university is taking energy efficiency seriously, and I hope that it can continue to find ways to reduce cost of utilities.

I acknowledge that there is a great deal of money required to run a university, but I often feel that a lot of money is wasted in many different areas (you could probably name a few yourself).  One of these areas is energy efficiency of campus buildings, and that is something we can start to improve: one light bulb at a time.


  • sarahes says:

    As a scientist concerned about the environment, sometimes I cringe at the energy and resources that go into experiments. The plastic disposables that get used when extracting DNA is ridiculous, but on the other hand necessary for good science. Energy consumption is also something I think about. Often in the lab, we can’t change the temperature settings because that would mess with ongoing experiments, and many time incubators must be left on overnight. Sometimes it is more energy-efficient to leave a machine on rather than going through shut-down and start-up protocols every day. However there are other ways the university can reduce energy consumption. For example, switching to LED lights can really help energy savings. While it may not be worthwhile to completely remodel the older buildings on campus, if renovations are being made, or if new buildings are going up, keeping energy efficiency in mind during the planning and building stages will help the university to not waste energy.

  • kadiebrittbyrd says:

    I’ve always wondered about this. I get disgusted just thinking about it. During my master’s time at the university of Tennessee, I always tried to recycle petri dishes. The dishes were spotless – they usually only contained minimal plant material and filter paper. I would put them into the recycle bin in my lab, and did this for several weeks. I found out after the fact that the janitor never recycled them because he wasn’t ALLOWED to. If it comes from a lab, they can’t recycle it (eye roll). It broke my heart.

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