Reducing Energy Use in UNL Facilities

Tuesday, October 26, 2021
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Energy use versus research funding
Energy use versus research funding

Kirk Conger has been UNL’s Energy Manager since 2002. He is a Professional Engineer and Certified Energy Manager. Prior to UNL, he served 17 years in the Nebraska Energy Office. He hates wasting stuff.

The Chancellor’s Environment, Sustainability and Resilience Master Plan identifies ten sustainability themes. UNL University Operations’ energy team focuses on the Energy theme. Our goal is to provide a comfortable environment for learning and research, and in Nebraska’s climate that requires a lot of energy to heat and cool buildings and provide the power for a modern research University. To be successful, we pursue three objectives of being reliable and responsive, economical and sustainable.

Similar to reducing plastic purchases before worrying about recycling plastic waste, the first step to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from UNL buildings is to reduce the amount of energy used by those buildings. The next step of reducing the environmental impact of that energy will be discussed in a future blog.

Most energy comes to campus as fossil fuel and electricity, into one of our two campus utility plants where it is used to produce steam and chilled water. These and electricity are then distributed to campus buildings. (Except for a small photovoltaic demonstration on the Animal Science building, UNL does not currently generate electricity.) Inside buildings, cooling and ventilation air is distributed by large fan systems, with heating for individual room temperature control. Using air for heating and cooling distribution allows us to maximize ventilation when necessary, which has been especially important during the past 18 months of pandemic.

A unique feature of UNL Facilities is that we design, develop and manufacture the electronic controls that operate and optimize these systems. These controls and other energy conservation projects have resulted in a 40% decrease in energy use per square foot over the last 17 years, giving us the lowest energy use index in the Big 10. This has been accomplished during a period of enrollment growth and increased research.

In addition to scheduling and optimizing automatic controls, we have upgraded lights, added building and system insulation, replaced windows, installed high-efficiency equipment and implemented preventative/predictive maintenance processes and fault detection for rapid repair of problems.

Saving energy is a team effort. While much of our energy reduction results from automation and high-efficiency energy equipment, we also need support from our campus citizens. In particular, we encourage you to

  • dress appropriately for the season, and then adjust your thermostat for comfort ,
  • switch off lights and other electric equipment when you don’t need it or leave the room,
  • use natural light from windows when available (except use shades when windows are in direct sunlight in the summer to minimize cooling load).

The Sustainability Master Plan calls for a 10% reduction in energy consumption by 2025 and reduction to a fixed, standard-based target by 2050. Those goals are quite aggressive since we have already picked much of the “low-hanging fruit”. Ultimately we may have to completely rebuild or replace some high-energy-use buildings. The most challenging energy goal is that by 2050 all buildings should be capable of operating with net-zero energy input. This may not be achievable for every UNL building, but we may be able to accomplish it for campus as a whole.