Their View | Saving energy is paramount

October 1, 2013 

Katherine Watt

In response to community pressure during the Columbia Gas transmission pipeline conflict, Penn State officials organized “Our Energy Future,” a public forum held Sept. 12.

Office of Physical Plant Director Rob Cooper and steam services superintendent Paul Moser framed the 70-percent-efficient fossil-fueled CHP (combined heat and power) plants as a midpoint on the path between low-efficiency centralized power plants (33 percent efficient) and green, renewable energy such as tightened building envelopes, solar photovoltaics, wind power and hydro power.

They reported that campus energy use peaked in 2005 and is down 18 percent since then, with a new goal of 35 percent reduction by 2020. They also highlighted the university’s energy strategic master plan, which was updated in 2011.

Cooper concluded that “ ... even this diverse approach of continued energy conservation mixed with carefully targeted renewables is likely to leave us short of our 2050 goal” of cutting emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels.

“Technological breakthroughs,” he said, “will be needed for us to affordably maintain our current standard of living and satisfy our projected appetite for energy while simultaneously meeting our GHG emission reduction obligations.”

Although the full master plan is not yet available online, community activist Dave Stone recently found Tab 4 of a 2007 draft, including a thorough overview of energy consumption and production at the University Park campus in the mid-2000s.

“A major effort toward modernization and expansion has occurred since the 1987 plan,” which has allowed the distribution system to accommodate growth from a peak demand of 28 million volt-amperes at that time to a very recent peak of 58 MVA in September 2005, according to the 2007 draft.

This, it said, “equates to about 4 percent annual growth in electric demand over this 18-year period, which is higher than typical. … Growth is mostly attributable to moderate levels of (c)ampus expansion and significant levels of increased cooling of (c)\ampus buildings.”

Stone also found two reports on a December 2009 master plan brainstorming session in which reducing energy demand is referenced only once.

One report indicates that Penn State “might save 50 percent of building energy usage through end-use efficiency.” It said weatherization should be the first step implemented.

The second document, from July 2010, describes the brainstorming session: “A number of ideas for reducing energy requirements through improvements in end-use or delivery efficiency were proposed by the group. The objectives of the meeting were directed toward energy sources, and the task of developing a comprehensive listing of energy reduction ideas was not part of the current scope for this project.”

When asked at the Sept. 12 forum for an estimate of energy-use reduction from good compliance with end-user behavioral changes (such as turning off computers and lights), along with retrofits to stop air infiltration, Cooper estimated about a 25 percent net reduction, even factoring in projected campus growth.

Those projections are key to energy planning, and we need to know more about them.

If Penn State leaders plan to add millions more square feet of air-conditioned, heated, heavily electrified space and increase student enrollment by several thousand each decade, resting their plans on the belief that energy-technology breakthroughs will emerge in a timely and economically scalable form, they should rethink.

They should consider the likelihood that the trillion-dollar student loan bubble will burst (reducing student enrollment); the shale gas bubble will burst (pushing up natural gas prices); and the Federal Reserve bond purchasing program’s stock bubble will burst, revealing a deepening economic depression in the real economy where nonfinanciers live and work.

Penn State needs to reverse the energy consumption spike between 1987 and 2005 by remodeling or replacing aging buildings for energy efficiency and reacclimating people to a wider range of interior temperatures — a “conservation-first” strategy — without any net growth in square footage and probably with a net decline.

Katherine Watt is a State College writer and community organizer. Readers may write to her at katherine_watt@hotmail.com.

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