Over the past year, as the price of natural gas has soared by more than 30 percent, colleges and universities have struggled to keep their energy budgets out of the red.
By John H. Tucker
Fortunately for CUA, the Office of Facilities Operations has been preparing for this scenario for nearly a decade. With the help of Bob Burhenn, who was appointed director of energy and utilities management in 1993, the university has launched several initiatives to defray future energy costs. The projects undertaken have included overhauling CUA’s entire boiler plant; upgrading the energy management system in every building on campus; making significant upgrades to the university lighting system, both exterior and interior; and installing new roofs with greater energy efficiency on Caldwell Hall and the Life Cycle Institute.
“A rise in energy prices has been brewing behind the scenes for the past eight or nine years, so we decided to take some big steps,” says Burhenn, who estimates CUA has saved $400,000 through its energy-saving initiatives.
While the major infrastructural issues have been significantly addressed, Burhenn says that managing rising energy costs is a more difficult problem. The current fiscal year marks the first time in the past decade that the facilities operations office is operating under an energy budget deficit. The rising cost and demand for energy are the primary reasons. To help offset this, the office is asking the entire CUA community to join the fight to conserve energy. In the coming weeks and months it will engage in a campaign titled “The Power Is in Your Hands,” to raise campus awareness with posters and light-switch covers advocating conservation. Burhenn says that a new CUA Web page and other electronic communications will also be used to motivate faculty, staff and students to help reduce the university’s energy bill. To follow are some practical actions that he invites faculty and staff members to adopt:
• Turn off lights and computers when leaving the office.
• Turn down heating/air-conditioning units whenever possible.
• Dress appropriately for each season.
“We have to generate interest on campus to help, because conserving energy is becoming a people issue,” advises Burhenn. “And energy doesn’t get consumed when the switches are off.”
Universities have had to absorb significant energy cost increases, thanks to a greater student dependency on electronics. A few years ago, notes Burhenn, CUA students averaged about one computer per residence-hall room, but now most students each have one, or even two, personal laptops. Burhenn also has witnessed a recent rise in student refrigerator and water usage. In 2002, each CUA student cost the university an average of $827 per year in utilities. In just four years, the number has risen to $1,090 and is continuing to rise due to the increased cost of producing and supplying energy.
CUA is one of many universities contending with the recent surge of gas and oil prices. The CUA energy director notes, for example, that a mid-sized Baltimore-area university recently projected a $2 million deficit in its energy budget. By comparison, the CUA deficit is approximately $600,000.
Burhenn says his office can mitigate some of the rising costs by rotating between natural gas and heating oil to power the university each year. Burhenn says he buys and sells energy like he would shares of a company, using the law of supply and demand to predict future values of oil and gas. When gas prices were lower early last summer, Burhenn nevertheless sold his gas allocation for $110,000 and switched to oil. Shortly after, the price of gas soared.
During the 2005-2006 Christmas break, the university lowered the heat in all campus buildings to a minimum level, strongly encouraged employees not to visit their offices and ushered all students with campus commitments into the same residence hall. According to Carl Petchik, executive director of facilities operations, the university saved a minimum of $5,000 per day in electricity costs during the break.
“In the past, if one student remained in a dorm over the break, the entire building had to be heated. But this year, the university administration did a great job spreading the word that campus power needed to shut down significantly,” says Burhenn.
In addition to minding the economics of energy consumption, the Office of Facilities Operations has been taking steps toward becoming more environmentally friendly, and now 12 percent of CUA’s energy is “green,” which means renewable and non-polluting. (Green energy comes in the form of wind, solar or hydroelectric power.) When CUA launched its green initiative three years ago by purchasing energy from a West Virginia wind farm, it boasted the highest green-energy-consumption rate among Washington, D.C.-area colleges and universities and one of the highest rates in the United States.
“Going with greener energy complements the university mission statement, which calls us to stewardship and to conserve our natural resources,” says Burhenn.