HomeDecentralized EnergyCogeneration CHPOn-site renewables at US universities: sustainability directors wield the power

On-site renewables at US universities: sustainability directors wield the power

The US higher education sector has proved fertile ground for the development of on-site renewable power systems, due to the commitment of its management. Ed Ritchie reports on initiatives from across the country.

Higher education in the USA is taking a high profile leadership role in defining the issue of sustainable energy and much of the emphasis is on fighting climate change. The generals in this battle are a new breed of sustainability managers tasked with setting policy for energy usage, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, conservation, and a range of environmental or ‘green’ related issues.

Considering the sheer numbers involved, the impact upon the energy industry will be substantial. Universities and colleges in the USA represent a US$317 billion marketplace, composed of more than 4000 institutions, where roughly 17 million students pursue their futures in fields such as engineering, business, law, urban planning, journalism and politics.

Tomorrow’s decision-makers are getting more than a casual exposure to the philosophy of sustainability and the viability of on-site power as it relates to climate change, greenhouse gas reduction, renewable energy, carbon neutrality and environmentally friendly products. However, the exposure is tempered by an approach that favours a broad portfolio of energy solutions rather than one magic bullet. And the approach is likely to be defined by a sustainability director with deep-rooted commitment to the environment.


Such is the case with Dr Shana S. Weber, director of the Office of Sustainability, Princeton University, New Jersey. As the fourth-oldest college in the USA, Princeton wields a fair share of influence in higher education. Weber is sceptical of on-site power generation as a stand-alone solution if energy conservation is not the primary core strategy.

‘The financially and socially responsible idea is to maximize our ability to demand as little energy as possible, from any source, renewable or non-renewable,’ says Weber. ‘On-site power generation makes a lot of sense as part of a sustainable energy portfolio, especially in regions where the energy grid may take a very long time to transition to cleaner options. But it is important to assess what is practical on-site and what makes more sense as part of a regional renewable power infrastructure.’

Part of Princeton’s energy portfolio is a natural gas-fired cogeneration system installed in 1996 to support electricity generation (15 MW), heating and cooling, and research on campus. To further the university’s sustainability and carbon dioxide reduction efforts, Princeton’s facilities department recently tested the energy plant boilers and the cogeneration system’s gas turbine on a fuel mix of soy-based biodiesel.

Ted Borer, energy plant manager, noted that it was the first time that biodiesel has been used to fuel GE’s LM1600 gas turbine. Borer’s efforts reflect both the guiding principles of Weber’s department and the search for more ways to reduce GHG emissions and global warming. Princeton’s energy plant received a 2007 Energy Star CHP Award from the US Environmental Protection Agency and the US Department of Energy for reducing pollution and improving energy efficiency.


Cogeneration played a central role in the University of Utah’s goal to increase its sustainability status. In this case, the CHP unit was the final chapter of a six phase, 20-year guaranteed energy savings contract between the University of Utah, located in Salt Lake City, and Chevron Energy Solutions in San Francisco. The university made extensive heating, cooling, lighting, energy management and water conservation improvements to 81 campus buildings.

According to Cory Higgins, director of the University of Utah’s plant operations, sustainability was a top priority for replacing ageing boilers supplying hot water to heat campus buildings. ‘In the last years the university has recognized that we have a responsibility and an opportunity to represent to the community good business practices,’ says Higgins, ‘Particularly as they relate to the environment and sustainability.’ Rather than just taking the simplest and cheapest solution, engineers looked at the other alternatives. ‘To replace these two boilers may have cost us near $4 million but we asked ourselves, do we just get the usual maintenance money and replace these, or is there something else that would make more sense?’

For Frank Gallardo, project manager for Chevron, the university’s concern for the environment and the aging boilers presented an ideal opportunity to bring a different approach to cogeneration. ‘One of the things we worked towards was their concern for sustainability,’ says Gallardo. ‘They had five boilers and the two we pulled out were early 1960’s vintage and not good for the environment.’ Those two units accounted for 65 million British thermal units per hour (MMBtu/hour) and contributed to the high temperature hot water demands across the campus.

As for the choice of a turbine, Chevron specified a Solar Taurus 70 natural gas turbine rated at 6.0 MW (site adjusted). The unit produces 25″28 MMBtu/hour waste heat and there’s an extra benefit to please the sustainability requirements ” just 9 parts per million (ppm) of nitrogen oxides (NOx) output. ‘That’s very low compared to other equipment,’ notes Gallardo. ‘It’s clean without needing strategic catalytic reduction due to Solar’s SoLoNOX technology.’

The multi-phased project was financed as an energy savings contract designed to pay for the improvements through Chevron’s ability to lower the university’s energy costs. But Chevron exceeded its goals and excess savings from phase one were $780,000. Phase two saw excess savings of $620,000. The combined savings from the first two phases funded a new 6800-ton capacity central chilled water plant. Phase 4 managed to deliver savings of $600,000 ” enough to pay for a new high temperature water plant.

The first and second phases addressed energy consumption in 24 buildings, with conservation improvements such as high efficiency lighting, new chillers, energy management systems, and variable speed drives and pumps. Phase three saw the building of a new 6800-ton chilled water plant. Phase four brought more energy conservation improvements to another 57 buildings and phase five saw the construction of a 210 MMBtu capacity high temperature hot water plant.


Office of Sustainability Director Craig Forster says, ‘There is value for energy supplier to know that there’s an explosion in the presence of sustainability offices over the last three years and it is continuing to grow.’ Forster noted that Young had joined more than 500 other college and university presidents who had signed the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment ” an initiative addressing global warming through institutional commitments to neutralize greenhouse gas emissions and accelerate climate research.

The University of Utah’s Craig Foster with the turbine of the new CHP plant at the site
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Young and Forster both agree that the climate commitment has been a powerful rallying point for universities. It is sponsored in part by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). According to Julian Dautremont-Smith, associate director of AASHE, the number of schools becoming members of AASHE has skyrocketed. ‘Part of it is being in the right place at the right time. We started before there was a bigger general societal shift towards being green,’ says Dautremont-Smith. ‘And part of it is the development of the seeds planted several years earlier and things like Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenience Truth, which raised consciousness and awareness of global warming. Higher education leaders have realized they can make a significant contribution and see it that as the right thing to do. They want to make a contribution and the leaders and show their communities have become more sustainable.’

When AASHE started, it tracked about 40″50 schools that had sustainability officers or offices with an employee addressing sustainability issues. The number has grown to more than 150 and new ones are announced daily.

Another observation is that these new sustainability positions have high level titles such as vice presidents and chancellors. As these departments have grown in power so has the opportunity for larger initiatives. ‘What I’ve been seeing is a move to renewable resources of on-site generation such as geothermal, solar and wind,’ comments Dautremont-Smith. ‘Also, many schools are really hurting from the energy prices, so trying to insulate themselves from rising energy prices does help leverage new funding to get all these projects initiated.’


Rising energy prices figured prominently in the choice of a cogeneration system for the University of New Hampshire’s sustainability strategy. As one of the largest energy users in the State of New Hampshire, the university spent more than $13 million on energy in 2005. With demand rising 1%”2% annually and state deregulation laws threatening to destabilize utility rates, the university decided on a cogeneration system. In 2006, the new plant became the primary source of heat and electricity for the campus.

The university used self-financing to pay roughly $28 million for a system that includes a chilled water plant. The anticipated payback is within 20 years and the savings incorporate relief from investing in renovations to the previous plant. Emissions savings have resulted in an estimated reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of 21% in the academic year 2006 compared with 2005. Moreover, an upgrade will contribute additional savings.

In late 2008, the University of New Hampshire (UNH) can claim to be the first university in the USA using landfill gas as its primary energy source. Waste Management of New Hampshire, Inc., partnered with UNH to create EcoLine, a landfill gas project which will pipe treated gas 13 miles (20 km) from Waste Management’s landfill in Rochester, New Hampshire, to the UNH campus.

The project will help UNH move away from its original design as a commuter campus says Brett N. Pasinella, sustainability programme co-ordinator. ‘EcoLine fits because we want more students walking on campus so were building more dorms. We really need to have some way to heat those buildings, and provide more power and grow the campus without growing our greenhouse gas emissions. Having an on-site renewable fuel source helps us to that.’

According to the university, when combined with the CHP plant, the landfill gas addition will lower energy costs, provide energy security and reduce emissions approximately 67% below 2005 levels and 57% below 1990 levels.


Many universities, such as the University of Buffalo (UB), New York, can’t afford to use self-funding yet they have aggressive sustainability and growth goals. Adding to the challenge is the fact that the New York state university system demands that financial savings from campus energy reductions be returned to the system. ‘A new system of financial rewards needs to be put into place,’ says the chair of the Committee on Environmental Stewardship, Robert G. Shibley, Professor of Architecture and Planning. As senior advisor to President John B. Simpson, Shibley is overseeing the process that will result in the first master plan for UB since the North Campus was built in the 1970s. Shibley notes that, under the current system, deans have to make choices between academic programmes and energy strategy. He wants to see new programmes that reward rather than punish university units that seek to embed energy conservation into new buildings from the beginning. And the same goes for producing power on the campus.

Solar array at the University of Buffalo University CHP plant at the site
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‘We’re looking at on-site power generation,’ says Shibley. ‘We have quite a lot of land and one could imagine an area of agriculture to generate biomass that would support cogeneration.’ UB has some off-grid power generation from a photovoltaic solar array. ‘What we know is that photovoltaic is still costing on a kilowatt hour more than fossil fuel, so the economics of it aren’t effective, but it functions well,’ Shibley explains. ‘As far as a demonstration project, it’s been successful but at the same time we’re not being foolish about the real economics because we have a university to run.’

The 73.5 kilowatt PV system is a 6300 square foot array of Sharp NT-175U1 panels with roughly 13.5% efficiency. The annual output of the system is approximately 73 MWh of electricity. An installed cost of $561,000 was funded up to $367,500 by a grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. The balance was financed from energy savings produced by the Chevron Energy Solutions comprehensive energy conservation project on the UB South Campus.


A new generation of photovoltaics has caught the attention of the Office of Facilities Systems Engineering at Yale University at New Haven in Connecticut. The office will soon begin three pilot renewable energy projects to test cutting edge, commercially available renewable energy technologies. Tom Downing, Senior Energy Manager at Yale, says these projects represent Yale’s commitment to renewable energy technologies and reducing its GHG emissions. The projects will have strategic locations around the campus to raise awareness about renewable energy technology.

One project will use Uni-Solar’s thin film PV panels to cover the southern roof of the Swing Dormitory building. Rated at 15 kW, it is expected to provide 3″5% of the building’s electricity. Another pilot will use small wind turbines known as ‘microwind’. The ‘architectural wind’ turbines (1 kW each) built by AeroVironoment Inc. catch the wind travelling up the side of a building. At 6.5 feet (2 metres) tall and weighing 60 pounds (27 kg), these compact units require a breeze of just 7 mph (3.1 metres/second) to start up.

In 2009, Yale plans to test a ‘qr5 microwind’ turbine from UK manufacturers, quietrevolution. The qr5 turbine features three s-shaped ‘eggbeater’ style blades which capture wind from any direction and can be installed in heavily trafficked locations.

Prototype of the qr5 microwind turbine to be tested at Yale University
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‘We should be testing new technology and recognizing its implications,’ says Dr Julie Newman, director of the Yale Office of Sustainability. Newman was hired as the first director of the Office of Sustainability at Yale University. She came from the University of New Hampshire, Office of Sustainability Programs (OSP) where she had assisted with the development of the programme since its inception in 1997. Prior to her work with the OSP she worked for University Leaders for a Sustainable Future (ULSF) while a graduate student at Tufts University.

‘I had hopes but never imagined back in the ’90s that sustainability would become the issue it is today,’ says Newman. ‘Actually this industry is exploding. I think it will be interesting to see what level these positions fall into because there’s a big difference between a sustainability co-ordinator that still reports to facilities department versus some of the new up-and-coming vice chancellor positions.’

Sustainability has reshaped the way Yale looks at energy and design for construction, and Newman notes that Yale has so many different sustainability activities in play that it’s difficult to keep up with everything. This year’s schedule addresses issues of land and water and biodiversity. The department has also started to work with institutions in China on issues of sustainability and is committed to working with Yale’s international partners and research universities. ‘On campus we’re making this evolutionary shift and the level of awareness has grown tremendously,’ says Newman. ‘Now, departments from across the campus are coming to us and asking how to become sustainable. And that’s exactly where we want to be.’

Yale installed a 250 kW molten carbonate power plant from FuelCell Energy in 2003, funded in part by the State of Connecticut’s Clean Energy Fund through a grant as part of a programme to promote Connecticut’s clean energy industries. It’s common for higher education to attract state funding through commitments such as Yale’s agreement to operate the fuel cell for 10 years as well as publicize and demonstrate it. After four years, it still produces near zero emission electricity, although there were breakdowns in the first two years when critical seals within the unit failed. Fuel Cell Energy eventually developed heat resistant seals and uptime within the last 20 months is better than 99%.

The role of sustainability directors and their activities in higher education is also evolving and it’s not limited to the USA. For example, in the UK, Harper Adams University College set up a Sustainable Technologies Network in October 2004 which has initiated a number of technology showcases. Harper Adams has produced an Environmental Sustainable Strategy to 2013 and sustainable technologies on the campus include an indirectly fired micro-air turbine biomass CHP system, a photovoltaic solar array on college buildings and sustainable building design.


Ultimately, as sustainability directors search for ways to meet their goals, their efforts will drive new demands for on-site power and other industries tied to power generation. Already there are more than 130 campuses in the USA with on-site renewable energy generation and total production exceeds 50 MW of clean energy. The Universities of Oklahoma, Minnesota, and Iowa, and Michigan State University have joined the Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX) ” a legally binding GHG emission registry, reduction and trading system.

As an example of liberal financing, the Harvard University’s Green Loan Fund provides interest-free capital for pollution reducing projects. It’s paid back with energy efficiency savings and reports a consistent return on investment of over 30%.

Sustainability directors have strong support from students. For example, University of Colorado-Boulder students voted to increase student fees ($1 per semester) to purchase the total output of a 2 GWh/year wind turbine. Later they voted to expand the wind purchase to 8.8 GWh/year. Four Yale students will spend their summer working on campus sustainability at universities in Australia, the UK and Denmark with the Sustainability Student Exchange programme.

With such widespread support and a multi-billion dollar marketplace, sustainability directors are more than just well-positioned to play a major role in on-site power production. Their values and concern for the environment will leave today’s generation of college and university students with a legacy that will strongly influence business, social and political decisions for energy issues on a global scale.

Ed Ritchie writes on energy matters from the USA.
e-mail: cospp@pennwell.com