UC's Energy Efficiency Keeps the Lights On in Dark Times

 UC's Energy Efficiency Keeps the Lights On in Dark Times

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In the midst of severe cuts at most of California’s public universities, there may be one bright spot. The University of California has embarked on an energy efficiency project that has started to reap financial benefits. That’s no small feat, at a time when the UC system has had to hike student fees, furlough faculty, and reduce course offerings to close a $1 billion budget hole. California State University and community colleges have undertaken similar steps to boost energy efficiency on their campuses.

Combined, the University of California and California State University systems account for one percent of the state’s energy consumption. The amount of energy UC uses each year is enough to power 270,000 households.

At the same time the state is pumping less money into education, the school system has seen its utility bills and health costs – for which the state doesn’t provide funds – skyrocket. The money for health benefits and energy bills comes out of the same pool of money that funds education and research.

With rising energy costs and shrinking state funds, the potential for energy efficiency to reap financial gains is grabbing the attention of UC’s leadership.

Adopted in 2004, University of California’s sustainability policy initially focused on greening its buildings and clean energy, but has expanded to include transportation, sustainable food, and reduction in its carbon footprint.

Now, renewable energy accounts for one-fifth of UC’s energy (it was zero just six years ago), and the school system has reaped $15 million a year in energy savings since the inception of the policy.

“It’s not like we completely halved or eliminated the energy bill, which would be impossible to do that and carry out the research and education mission of the university. But $15 million is a lot of money that’s not thrown down the tubes to pay for energy bills,” said Matt St. Clair, University of California’s sustainability manager.

St. Clair, who was an environmental policy graduate student at UC Berkeley at the time, was part of the vanguard of students who were instrumental in winning the adoption of the campus-wide sustainability policy.

“We went straight to the top to the Board of Regents,” he said. UC’s governing board responded by calling for a feasibility study to assess what it would take to implement the measures.

“They needed a lot of convincing… it was a very active campaign,” St. Clair said. Student leaders galvanized support on all of the campuses and made sure they had input on the study. Though the sustainability plan was hard won, St. Clair says, UC’s governing board is now turning to energy efficiency and conservation to save money.

“It’s a core part of the strategy to deal with budgets cuts,” St. Clair said.

Dirk A. Van Ulden, associate director of energy and utilities for the school system, admitted that with UC’s yearly energy budget of $300 million, the cost savings from the current energy efficiency projects are “not significant enough for the size of our operation, and we are the first to admit it.”

He said the University of California is scaling up its energy efficiency projects in hopes that they will have a larger fiscal impact. The university recently approved a $247 million investment in sustainability projects that is expected to generate $35 million a year. UC would pocket $18 million of that, with the remainder going to pay the debt for 15 years.

Through a partnership between the UC and several utilities, the companies would grant UC $61 million. Van Ulden says the university system would kick in $ 6 million and finance the remaining $180 million through bond sales

The campuses would then be on track to reduce their energy use, which is expected to decline by about 12 percent to 147,000 Btu per square foot by the end of 2012. That’s despite a 22 percent growth in square footage of space from new buildings between 2000 and 2008.

Maric Munn, who is facilities manager at UCSF, says the construction of two new buildings at the campus have obscured the energy savings from greening its buildings. The school initially invested $400,000 and will see $71,000 a year in “avoided costs,” for the next 10 years.

Munn uses the term “avoided costs” because she says with energy savings, “you expect to see an overall budget decrease.” In fact, UCSF’s overall energy cost and consumption have gone up because it added two new buildings, with additional energy loads.

But Munn notes that the energy costs would have been even higher if the school didn’t implement energy efficiency measures.

The school plans to ramp up the program. For an investment of $2.8 million, it expects to eventually gain $1.3 million a year in avoided costs.