Lessons Learned: Energy Management Solutions for U.S. Colleges & Universities

Since budget shortfalls are the ‘new normal,’ these days, both public and private colleges in the U.S. are having to do more with less. The challenge, of course, is to manage tight budgets without impacting student programs or demoralizing staff. Reducing utility costs through more efficient energy management is an obvious solution—enabling colleges to cut expenses, increase capital budgets, boost enrollment, and achieve sustainability goals.

Consider This:
  • The majority of U.S. colleges and universities were built before 1975. Their energy infrastructure (electrical equipment, heating, air conditioning, ventilation systems, etc.) is no longer energy efficient. Inefficiency results in wasted energy (approximately 30%) and unnecessarily high operating and maintenance costs.
  • According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the 5,300 colleges and universities operating in the U.S. spend about $7 billion on energy costs every year. That equates to an average of $1,320,755 per college per year. Eliminating wasted energy (30%) would, accordingly, result in an average annual savings of $396,267 per college.
  • The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) has confirmed that that energy efficiency, or megawatts not used , are the cheapest “energy source” there is.
  • In addition to increasing campus energy efficiency, ever-increasing energy needs and costs are prompting colleges and universities to investigate alternative sources of power —sources that are more affordable, resilient, flexible and environmentally sound.
  • Onsite energy generation, storage, and distribution give colleges greater control of their power supply — turning energy from a cost to an asset.
  • In addition to the cost savings, a commitment to energy efficiency and renewable energy is proven to boost enrollment. (63% of college applicants say a college or university’s commitment to environmental issues influences their decision to attend.)

As such, colleges that fail to combine energy efficiency upgrades with distributed energy resources (DERs) miss out on the benefits of energy cost reductions, and energy resiliency. They also risk losing students to competitive schools.

A Smarter Approach

Today’s energy landscape is vastly different from what it was just ten years ago. Innovations in energy technologies, access to affordable clean energy options, and rising demands for sustainable campuses have prompted forward-thinking colleges and universities to explore more efficient ways to acquire, generate, and store energy. For many, microgrids are the optimum solution.

While the initial move towards microgrids arose from a need to cut energy costs, universities and colleges are now installing microgrids to meet sustainability goals, recruit environmentally-conscious college applicants and equip graduates for jobs in the growing clean energy economy.

The Grid Versus Microgrids

The “grid” connects colleges, businesses, and homes to a central power source. In the U.S. an interconnected, centralized grid delivers electricity from about 7,300 power plants through 160,000 miles of high-voltage power lines and millions of low-voltage lines to about 145 million customers. Unfortunately, this interconnectedness means that when part of the grid goes down or needs to be repaired, everyone is affected.

Microgrids combine energy resources to connected buildings within a confined geographic area. Energy generation resources are co-located with and interconnected to the buildings they serve. While they are generally connected to the grid, microgrids can break off and operate on their own using local energy generation in times of crisis or during peak demand energy times. This is called ‘island mode’ which allows microgrids to continue to provide power during a grid outage without any gap in service. Depending on how it’s fueled and how its requirements are managed, a microgrid might run indefinitely.

Batteries Included!

As the saying goes, “if you’ve seen one microgrid, you’ve seen one microgrid.” Nevertheless, the majority of microgrids in the U.S. include either all or some of the following components:

  • Renewable energy sources (solar, wind or biomass)
  • Fossil fuel energy sources (diesel generators)
  • Energy storage (batteries, etc.)
  • A low-voltage supply grid regulated by a smart control system
Benefits  of DISTRIBUTED ENERGY for Colleges and Universities

Since most campuses are self-contained, have abundant available space (rooftops, parking lots, etc.) and require energy 24/7, they tend to be ideal candidates for microgrids. And, like many institutions affected by severe weather events and power outages, there’s an emerging demand in higher education for energy resiliency. The ability to operate independently from the grid is invaluable during emergency or planned power outages. Additional benefits that microgrids provide for colleges and universities include:

  • Energy Resiliency: Microgrids are particularly important to university research labs since they often have temperature-sensitive specimens. Power outages can eliminate years of effort and millions of dollars of work.
  • Efficient Energy Management: When combined with energy efficiency measures, microgrids can be programmed to provide the most efficient, lowest-cost energy first.
    • For example, colleges can shift their power source from the grid to solar in response to fluctuating energy market prices.
    • Local generation can be switched off and energy can be taken from the grid when prices are low, then turned back on during demand peaks.
  • New Revenue Stream: Private colleges can also earn revenue from selling excess power generated back to the grid. The additional revenue can be repurposed where it can do the most good – student programs.
  • Competitive Advantage: Microgrids effectively position colleges in the market as a sustainability leader which has proven to boost enrollment and faculty acquisition/retention.
Funding Options

In the past, one of the overriding concerns for universities was the cost of implementing a microgrid. Today, companies like SmartWatt offer a number of no-capital required funding solutions that use the savings resulting from efficiency and generation measures to pay for the cost of the microgrid.

Regardless of the funding source, the first step for any energy upgrade should always be to audit existing energy infrastructure – analyzing each building’s energy usage patterns. In addition to providing a clear accounting of how and where energy is consumed on campus, an energy audit will uncover opportunities for reducing energy consumption as well as the financial implications of micro-gridding either all or part of the campus.

In conclusion

A combination of state regulations, fluctuating electricity prices, urgent environmental issues, and student pressure have colleges all across the U.S. reexamining their energy management practices. Fortunately, the declining costs of energy efficiency upgrades combined with distributed energy resources have introduced new energy management options that improve college operating budgets, boost enrollment and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Colleges and universities play a unique role in shaping the future of energy through their approach to energy management. Committing to energy practices that are secure, resilient, predictable, efficient, and sustainable sets an example for other colleges – and communities – to follow.

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