The roof of the Case Tennis Center, topped with solar panels installed in 2016. Courtesy University of Tulsa

TU aims to reduce its utility and energy costs

Running a university is not a cheap endeavor, and the electricity, gas and other utilities costs do not help matters. But the university also works to lower its bills for these necessities when it can.

The Physical Plant is the center of most of these efforts. This facility pumps water across campus and is responsible for the heating and cooling of much of the air across campus. Inside, engineers are able to monitor electricity and temperature usage in buildings, even specific rooms, across campus, and they are notified when something is out of whack.

Centralizing these efforts saves money, according to Jason Grunin, associate director of special projects and energy conservation, because it allows one central, larger device to work, instead of multiple smaller units that may use more energy collectively.

As such, the Physical Plant uses the most energy on campus. TU is powered by electricity and natural gas, as well as solar panels on the roof of the Pat Case Tennis Center.

In 2017, the university used 36.7 kWh of energy. From 2013 to 2017, the university was able to reduce usage of electricity by 13 percent, while adding over 100,00 square feet of conditioned space. For 2017, the university used about 12.7 kWh hours per square feet. According to Madison Gas and Electric, the average college in the U.S. uses 18.9 kWh of electricity per square foot. While this average was for 2015, TU used about 15.8 kWh per square foot in this same time period. According to Madison Gas and Electric, the major usages of electricity are computers (18 percent), lighting (17 percent), cooling (10 percent), ventilation (22 percent), miscellaneous (27 percent) and refrigeration (6 percent).

TU does not have sub metering for the majority of campus, but the central plant accounts for the largest use of energy.

Grunin explained these decreases in electricity usage to multiple factors: “management of temperature controls and installation of automation equipment that monitors and controls fan speeds and makes adjustments based on environment.” Automation equipment, Grunin explained, are sensors that are installed in an area of a building to monitor electricity usage, which sends information back to the Physical Plant, which can control and notice any irregular behavior.

Not all buildings are on the same system, but as older buildings, like Keplinger, are updated, new sensor systems are installed. These new systems are digital and can report much more information than older systems. Unfortunately, renovating these buildings costs a great deal of money, and because the buildings are still functioning, buildings like Lottie Jane, the Mabee Gym and Fisher South are not required to switch to the new systems immediately. But, Grunin pointed out, “what we’re building to put in is going to be a 30-year system,” so it will serve its use. Placing these sensors allows the university to “further track energy usage, capture overall usage and make more targeted decisions.”

The implementation of new heating and cooling measures standardized temperatures across campus, further saving energy. Last year, the university set new temperature controls; instead of 72 degrees for both winter and summer, the targets were 70 degrees in the winter and 74 degrees in the summer, with some variance allowed. These new standards were based off the American Society for Heating Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), which sets goals based on comfort level and energy usage. These new targets did not affect libraries, dorms, the LPC or Gilcrease.

In addition, the university is in the process of moving most of its data center from TU to a hosted site in Oklahoma City. This move will reduce energy consumption by over 75 kWh, eventually a $100,000 annual savings. All campus web, file and application processes run from this location. “Our facility was never designed to run as an efficient data center with thousands of servers like the facility to which we are moving our servers,” Grunin said.

The data center was built in the 1950s and 1960s, an old fallout shelter that’s been retrofitted to accommodate new technology. “Computers have gotten smaller,” Grunin explained, “which means more heat requirements because it has been miniaturized. That applies all over campus.” The university expects the move will be complete by the end of this year, after two years of work. A limited number will remain in the university’s data center, that either can’t move or are management tools.

Occupancy sensors and LED lightning are other measures the university uses to reduce energy consumption. These measures are in all new buildings and are added as places are renovated. If there’s no movement for 20 minutes, the light shuts off. In Hardesty and John Mabee, these sensors also control the heat and air conditioning, dropping the temperature to a comfortable level after a period of inactivity. The same goes for ACAC. The university tried, in 2015, to run a “turn off the light” campaign, but “found that most places still did not comply.” Sensors are a relatively inexpensive way to control the human element of energy savings.

It’s difficult to control temperatures in class buildings the same way. In Keplinger, for instance, three classrooms might be in the same zone and used at different times, so after hours, temperatures are raised or lowered based on the time of year. “If we had one scheduling system for the whole campus, and people didn’t go into rooms to have a meeting,” Grunin said, then they could control the temperatures of the zones throughout the day. Vending machines also have similar sensors that detect sound and motion.

Gas usage by the university has decreased 23 percent from 2013-2017. In 2017, the university used 151,556 MCF. According to the Madison Gas and Electric company, about 76 percent of natural gas is used for heating, while 14 percent is water heating and the remaining usage is miscellaneous.

Water usage on campus is on a downward trend, but it’s more difficult to control, Grunin said. “It’s almost always a human-driven item. We can’t just make a couple of adjustments and drop our levels down,” he noted. The university has installed “sprinkler irrigation controls, a weather station to control sprinklers, management of chilled water cooling system, water shutoff automation valves and low-flow urinals.” Low-flow faucets are in most buildings and apartments. Again, the Physical Plant uses the majority of the water to cool, heat and run irrigation.

Solar energy represents the university’s use renewable energy. The panels on the Case Tennis Center were completed in September of 2016, in a joint project with the Public Service Co. of Oklahoma. Last year, these panels produced about 50,000 kWh of energy.

According to Grunin, these panels produce approximately 585 kWh daily during winter months and 1600 kWh a day during the summer. Because TU regularly pays 10 cents per kWh for power, Grunin said the university was able to reduce its reliance on PSO utilities by about $50,000. The university doesn’t pay for maintenance costs, as they are included in the 30-year lease agreement with PSO. PSO then maintains, inverts and fixes damaged panels and other internal components. The lease payment is derived from annual building energy usage.

When the university builds its next building, Grunin said installing solar panels is “not off the table.” Case Tennis Center was chosen because it had uninterrupted roof access and could structurally could hold the panels; Collins Fitness Center was a close second, losing out because of its roof angles. The final decision on whether to install panels on the next building would come down to construction costs, PSO involvement and overall roof design, Grunin said.

Wind power is another option. To be completely powered by wind would cost the university about a million a year. To switch to wind power requires a discussion of what the university is willing to sacrifice to run by wind power.

Grunin emphasized any changes to the university’s energy usage could be driven by student voices. While the university will try to reduce its usage, for many reasons, the university is also somewhat governed by students and will respond more strongly to their will.

Post Author: Michaela Flonard