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The energy answer

Prospect of return investment drives energy initiatives

Published: Thursday, January 16, 2014

Updated: Thursday, January 16, 2014 23:01


William Guerra


William Guerra


William Guerra

With the development of West Campus housing and plans designed to increase enrollment at Texas A&M such as the Engineering School’s 25 by 25 plan, the University faces multiple issues associated with an expanding population, including increased energy needs.

Following the project that ended in 2012 to retrofit 23 campus buildings with more efficient lighting and building automation, the Utilities and Energy Services (UES) Department plans to retrofit 10 more buildings on campus by the end of 2014.

Among other tasks, the retrofit projects include the implementation of high efficiency lighting and motion sensors, designed to turn off lighting as well as heating and cooling systems during unoccupied times, said Jim Riley, UES executive director.

Riley said the beauty of programs like the $15 million 2012 retrofitting is that they ultimately pay for themselves in cost avoidance, while improving services.

“I mean you can’t save 15 million dollars right away, but we’re saving close to $2 million dollars a year by retrofitting those 23 buildings,” Riley said. “So we can easily pay for it in 10 years or less.”

The Student Recreational Center will also be retrofit as a part of the expansion project that begins this semester. Dennis Corrington, executive director of the REC, said REC officials have been working with energy management representatives on plans to improve energy efficiency, but that cost has been a driving factor.

“We’ve been looking at replacing the lighting for a couple years,” Corrington said. “We’ve had a couple presentations from companies that do that and our focus was on return on investment and how long that’d take.”

While the current UES retrofitting plans and REC expansion plans kick off this semester, these initiatives represent only a small part of the energy conservation efforts on the growing campus.

In working to improve the quality and efficiency of the University’s energy use, Riley said the University has invested a quarter of a billion dollars in the utility infrastructure since 2002, an investment that has yielded positive results.

“Over the last decade, since 2002, the campus has grown in square footage by 30 percent, which is huge growth,” Riley said. “But instead of seeing energy use grow by 30 percent, or stay flat, there’s actually been a 30 percent reduction in energy consumption.”

As a result of more efficient operation and capital investment, Riley said the campus has reduced energy by 45 percent per square foot since 2002, a reduction that resulted in $165 million in cost avoidance.

“It’s a huge financial impact,” Riley said. “Obviously if you can reduce the cost associated with energy consumption, then the savings for the University can be reinvested in other things such as teaching, research and improved facilities.”

While Riley said dollars tend to drive decisions related to energy initiatives, an important part of the department’s goal is reducing environmental impact while providing improved service and operational benefits.

In order to reach these goals, other projects underway include a $46 million capital upgrade program to replace older, less efficient production systems and add cooling and heating capacity to meet the needs of a growing campus.

An active Energy Stewardship Program promotes ongoing outreach and engagement to keep the whole campus on the same page in terms of energy use.

Caleb Groves, sophomore biological and agricultural engineering major, said for him a big selling point on the UES programs was the fact that student fees aren’t raised in the process, but he wonders whether there will be more energy efficient technology available when the current programs are paid off in cost avoidance.

“It’s interesting to think about but really all just conjecture,” Groves said. “So all you can do is try to improve things with what you can.”

For now, however, the goal of the UES Team, Riley said, is to have systems that work so well that they are not noticed by the growing number of people using the facilities on campus.

“Cooling and heating systems should all work quietly behind the scenes, just like you shouldn’t have to worry about if the lights are going to come on when you flip the switch,” Riley said.

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