Higher Education = Higher Efficiency Potential?

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To follow up with my recent post on energy efficiency in K-12 schools, I wanted to take a look at some trends in higher education as well (it is that time of year when everyone’s returning to school, after all).

In the realm of higher education, the issues are a little different. Whereas the annual energy cost for K-12 schools is about $1/sf, university buildings cost about $2.20/sf to operate, and laboratories and other research facilities can cost as much as $4/sf or higher. As shown in the figure below, potential energy cost savings in higher education ($0.77/sf) are larger relative to the floorspace for higher education buildings as compared with K-12 buildings ($0.36/sf) for a ten-year retrofit. As energy costs are higher in post-secondary education, energy efficiency becomes all the more important—and attractive—as an opportunity.

In addition, green building certification provides another benefit: attracting an increasingly environmentally conscious student body. Campuses that undertake comprehensive sustainability plans—with green building as one of the most prominent features of many sustainability plans—see sustainability as a way to differentiate themselves from other schools. This tendency has remained strong even through the recession, and some green architecture firms are finding more reliable work in the university sector than other sectors such as office buildings. Many campuses have gone ahead and certified a few buildings to LEED standards as a concrete symbol of their commitment to sustainability.

While public universities are largely beholden to the green building regulations in their particular state (see Schooling the Masses in Energy Efficiency), private universities are adopting green building practices to reduce operational costs and improve their image. Harvard University developed an innovative revolving loan fund known as the Green Campus Loan Fund that has grown to $12 million in recent years. The fund provides loans of up to $500,000 per project to finance green building improvements that pay off within a matter of five years.

One of the major barriers in universities is that many campus utilities are not submetered by building. In other words, there’s no record of how much the science building is using compared with the arts building; the entire campus gets one bill that rolls all consumption up for the month. Without granular knowledge of the energy consumption in specific buildings, it’s hard to know where the best efficiency opportunities are.

The recession has made it hard to finance long-term performance contracts in some educational buildings. In addition, while energy efficiency can reduce operating costs in the long term, many universities are looking for near-term ways to cut operating costs. This tendency leads them to either “cream skimming” the efficiency measures with very short paybacks, or abandoning energy efficiency as a whole.

Still, interest in greening campuses is only growing. Over 600 campuses are signatories to the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC), which requires members to provide carbon emissions inventories to the public and make progress toward carbon neutrality. In addition, the USGBC recently launched a campaign known as the Green Campus Campaign to provide support for campus sustainability efforts. Once the recession lifts and financing for university-level buildings becomes available once again, look for more activity in this area.

Article by Eric Bloom, appearing courtesy Matter Network.

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