Thursday, May 17, 2007

Students in University of Illinois Environmental Studies Workshop Identify Practical Ways to Conserve Energy

Students Identify Practical Ways to Conserve Energy

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This Spring, seniors in the Environmental Fellows Program, an undergraduate minor administered by the Environmental Council at the University of Illinois, investigated energy use on campus as part of a workshop course in environmental studies. [Click to view Course website.] With support from U of I Facilities and Services and faculty members from Engineering, Urban Planning, and Environmental Science, students in the workshop sought to identify realistic ways for the University to conserve energy. By adopting new energy-use policies and practices, these students now suggest, the U of I campus can save significant money, and at the same time mitigate the negative social and environmental impacts of energy waste, chief among them climate change.

Students from the course worked in six teams, each with a different focus. One group examined lighting and computer use, another, green building practices, and another how accountability might be instituted, so that individuals and departments might have a more direct stake in conservation efforts. Other teams investigated the issue of greenhouse gas emissions and programs for building awareness of energy issues on campus.

The group whose project really hit home for me explored the potential for energy savings with adjustments to the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system in the National Soybean Research Center, the building where I work.

The students began their investigation by surveying occupants to understand how the space in the building was used, and by studying the current heating and cooling system to identify potential upgrades. They noted that a large portion--40-50%--of the energy consumed by this and other campus buildings is used for heating and cooling. The students found that the majority of the energy waste associated with this system in the National Soybean Research Center stems from the fact that it operates at full tilt 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, whether or not spaces are occupied.

Based on this finding, the team recommended three changes. The easiest change to implement and the one that would result in the greatest savings would be to upgrade to digital thermostats. This would make it possible to reduce the heating and cooling in offices at night and on weekends, while allowing lab systems to continue running. The team estimated that this upgrade would pay for itself in savings in 2 to 3 years, and they project that it would yield $560,000 in savings over a 15 year period.

The second recommendation would go a step further toward reducing unnecessary heating and cooling by installing occupancy sensors to shut off systems when building users are not in their offices. This is a smaller scale project with a 1-year payback and 15-year savings of $174,000. A third recommendation, which calls for more sensitive controls on fume hoods in labs, would result in similar savings, although at a higher initial cost.

In all, students from the environmental studies workshop estimate the University could reduce energy use in my building by 20%, and that it could do so using current technology at a cost that would be recovered in less time than it takes earn an undergraduate degree.

If you imagine the impact of extending this approach to the 600-some facilities on the Urbana-Champaign campus, you come to understand how great the opportunities for energy conservation are. And you’re reminded, too, that the campus can be what Environmental Council Director Bill Sullivan calls a “living laboratory,” a place where students and faculty work together to address today’s most pressing environmental concerns.

Special thanks to Dr. Rumi Shammin, instructor for the Environmental Studies Workshop, for the enormous help he provided on this piece.