Penn State

Penn State eyes cutting energy use where possible

Workers inside the West Campus Steam Plant plant are in the process of replacing three of the boilers as part of the conversion to natural gas. The conversion started in 2014 and will be complete in 2017.
Workers inside the West Campus Steam Plant plant are in the process of replacing three of the boilers as part of the conversion to natural gas. The conversion started in 2014 and will be complete in 2017. CDT photo

Imagine you want to use 20 percent less energy in your home.

It’s a noble goal, but it can be tough. You might have to change your insulation, install energy-efficient windows, put on a new roof, maybe get a different furnace or water heater. You have to get your kids to turn off the lights when they leave a room, and learn to take a quicker shower in the morning.

Now imagine that you have almost 100,000 kids, spread out in 24 cities, with 289 houses in one town alone.

Welcome to saving energy at Penn State.

The university joined the U.S. Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Challenge this month, committing to cutting the energy use in its buildings by 20 percent over the next 10 years. More than 200 businesses, organizations and government agencies have signed onto the challenge so far, including Macy’s and Kohl’s department stores, the states of Massachusetts and Maryland and cities such as Denver and Atlanta.

Penn State is the largest educational institution to pledge participation, as well as being a leader in the state. The university is one of First Energy’s five largest customers in Pennsylvania.

According to Rob Cooper, director of energy and engineering for the Office of Physical Plant, the challenge is the continuation of something Penn State has been working toward for more than a decade. Since 2003, the university has invested $75 million in energy-saving projects.

That might seem like a lot of money, but the University Park campus alone has a $14 million electric bill every year. Heating the buildings over the winter takes another $12 million. Cooper said the projects have actually made it possible to get energy costs down to levels from 10 years ago while simultaneously adding 4 million square feet of facilities to the campus.

Some projects are being tackled purely for energy reasons, like converting the West Campus Steam Plant from using coal for production to cleaner-burning natural gas. Other projects are being tackled as they arise. There are building projects happening all over campus, and as they are planned, OPP is evaluating them for efficient energy improvements.

Some are big and easy to see, like lights at Beaver Stadium. Some are as simple as an inexpensive film over windows. The student services building was using huge amounts of energy and had problems for students because of energy being wasted through large panes of glass that weren’t very efficient. Rather than spend a lot of money replacing relatively new windows, applying a thin film solved the problem and gave the engineers an idea for something to think about going forward.

“It’s a ripple effect,” OPP spokesman Alex Novak said. “We’re at such a scale, we have a huge potential for savings.”

The university tries to explore new areas when possible. Electricity generated at University Park through steam production is used when possible and is cleaner than that available from the grid, they say.

There are forays into new technology, too. Although there has been little solar energy on campus to date, the Class of 2015’s gift to the university is a solar array that OPP will be studying to determine the best use and placement.

GE recently announced a $10 million investment for the Center for Collaborative Research on Intelligent Natural Gas Supply Systems to allow students and researchers from different areas to collaborate with industry stakeholders.

Working with new projects in new ways, and finding ways to make 100-year-old buildings work in a modern world, is challenging OPP, but they say they look forward to it.

“We’re much more thoughtful about it,” Novak said. “It’s a puzzle. It’s cool.”