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From common sense to common practice

The University launched "the Economy and the U" to help faculty and staff stay up to date on emerging budget news

By Adam Overland

hand holding lightbulb
How many people does it take to change energy consumption habits at the U? See photo below for answer.

February 4, 2009

The University launched the Web site "The Economy and the U" on Jan. 14 to help faculty and staff stay up to date on emerging budget news. A key feature of the site is a suggestion box where employees can contribute their thoughts to questions about cost savings. The first question posed on the site has generated an outpouring of responses from the U community about ways to conserve energy to reduce costs.

Uncommon savings

The suggestion box runs on the principle that 20,000 employees at the U likely have 20,000 suggestions from vantage points unavailable to policy-makers.

"It's a goal of the University to be a responsible steward of resources, but it's oftentimes the ideas of individuals that show us how to do that," says Karen Himle, Vice President of University Relations. "If that weren't true, we wouldn't call this a University."

Many suggestions contributed to the site can be implemented immediately by individuals at little or no cost, like turning off lights and computers at the end of the day.

"Many of these ideas are common sense ideas, but they're not common practice," says Tim Busse, communications director for University Services who is helping put together an energy conservation plan. A number of the suggestions from the Web site will be incorporated into this plan.

Consider the case of the airline industry.

Minnesota's homegrown Northwest Airlines adopted a number of cost savings ideas, often suggested by employees with a point-of-view nearer the action, when oil rocketed beyond $100 a barrel in 2008.

They did big things like replacing engines with more fuel-efficient models, removing inefficient aircraft from their fleets, and slowing the cruising speed of aircraft.

A Northwest Airlines flight from Paris to Minneapolis, flying at an average speed of 532 mph, down from the usual 542 mph, saves 162 gallons of fuel (about $250 today, but more than 600 with $4.00 per gallon fuel). It adds only eight minutes to the 9-hour flight. For an airline that flies millions of miles per year, the savings are massive.

But they also took small actions, like sending 25 percent less water flowing through bathroom faucets on international flights (a move that saves the airline an estimated $440,000 a year for every 25 pounds of water removed). Southwest Airlines estimated it saved $1.6 million in fuel costs in less than four months simply by washing jet engines more often to get rid of the drag caused by dirt and debris.

Some of these savings, of course, require an enormous amount of upfront capital, but some, like better planning the amount of water needed on a flight, cost nothing. There's no doubt that analogous situations exist at the U (Example: one employee suggests that "Large-bottled water to offices could be eliminated, using tap water instead).

Like the airlines, the U has energy efficiency issues that require tremendous upfront capital, from updating heating systems to replacing windows. But the number of people citing computers left on nights and throughout weekends shows that some quick-fixes can be controlled by individuals. Lighting and computers together represent nearly 10 percent of the U's energy costs.

A "how-to" on some easy greening

"There are numerous [office-energy] checklists," says the U's sustainability coordinator, Amy Short. "We plan to develop one unique to our campus, too. While [some of these ideas] don't seem earth-shattering, multiplied by the number of people on campus, simple practices can add up."

Many of the suggestions submitted by U employees represent effective and practical ways to reduce energy consumption:


  • Lower the brightness of your computer to save a significant amount of energy.
  • Power down computers nightly and when out of the office for extended periods of time during the day, and unplug office equipment that is rarely used. Note: A modest amount of turning on and off will not harm the computer or monitor. The life of a monitor is related to the amount of time it is in use, not the number of on-and-off cycles.
  • The best screen saver is no screen saver. Screen savers use energy; setting your personal computer to "sleep" is a better alternative.
  • Most computer equipment now comes with power management features. If your computer has these features, make sure they are activated.
  • Printers consume energy even while idling. If you have a color printer and a b/w printer, but you mainly use b/w, unplug the color printer until you need to use it.
  • We print a lot. Rather than continuing to try to get people to cut back on printing, save some money on paper and toner by settings defaults on all computers to print two-sided and b/w only. [Doing so would require] that people take active steps to print single-sided and/or with color.

Lighting efficiencies

  • Open your blinds and let the sun in at the beginning of the day. During the heating season, open blinds allow sunlight in for solar heat gain. In the evenings, close blinds to reduce thermal heat loss.
  • Consider using lamps (task lighting) and minimizing overhead lighting. Even better, use CFL bulbs in that lamp.
  • If you spend a lot of time working at a computer, consider reducing the overall brightness level in your room to enhance screen visibility.
  • It is more energy efficient to turn a light off than to leave it on, for any amount of time. Energy is measured with respect to time. The momentary surge of electricity required to start your light bulb will not have a negative impact on energy costs, but leaving it on all the time will.

Other tips from U

  • Post signs at power doors reminding people to only use them when needed, stating how much energy they require and how much heat/ac escapes when they're open.
  • Have similar signs at elevators reminding people how much energy they require and the fitness benefits of using stairs for those who are able.

What the U is doing right now

The U is actively working toward reducing energy consumption on campus. Facilities Management's Energy Management unit is responsible for managing the U's $90 million annual energy budget and the electrical and steam distribution infrastructure required to light, heat, and cool the Twin Cities campus. About half of that ($45 million) is spent on actual energy costs, says Jim Green, assistant director, Energy Management.

"As far as big-ticket energy users, HVAC (heating, ventilating, and air conditioning) is by far the largest, fattest, hungriest energy hog on campus. Approx 60 percent of a building's energy is consumed by HVAC systems," says Green.

But lighting consumes about 8-12 percent of a building's total electricity, says Green. Meanwhile, the Department of Energy indicates more than 2.3 percent of a building's energy goes to computers.

Habit + change = money

Energy Management coordinates a conservation program designed to reduce and optimize energy use while maintaining or improving building heating and cooling comfort. The goal of the program is to reduce total energy consumption 1.5 percent by the end of FY09 and 5 percent by the end of FY10. Nevertheless, a significant percentage of the U's energy consumption is under discretionary control of building occupants, so reaching that goal will require action by the entire U community.

If more than 10 percent of a building's energy use goes towards lighting and computers, then a change in computing and lighting habits among U employees of even 10 percent would save $450,000 per year. Add to that Energy Management's FY09 goals and you're at more than a $1 million in savings. In 2010, it's nearly $3 million. That's about 2 percent of the U's expected cut over the next biennium.


Suggestions submitted to the site are shared with University leaders and considered for implementation. Ideas and suggestions submitted to the site will continue to be highlighted in Brief. You can review what your colleagues are saying at the Economy and the U.

For more information and tips on how and why to conserve energy at your workplace, your community, and for the environment, visit What You Can Do to Conserve Energy at the U!

Keeping cool and staying warm at the University

St. Paul Chiller Plant

In 2004 and 2005, historic preservation and energy efficiency were the driving forces behind a major construction project on the St. Paul campus. The University rehabilitated a historic building in order to combine multiple chillers used for air conditioning found throughout numerous buildings on campus. With funding from the Minnesota State Legislature, the Central Chiller Plant replaced aging and inefficient chillers in 16 buildings across the St. Paul campus. The result was just under $1 million annual cost savings for the University in steam and maintenance labor, increased energy efficiency in reducing CO2 by approximately 3,300 metric tons annually, and an overall increase in reliability of the St. Paul chilling systems.

Steam Plant

The Southeast Steam Plant, which the University now owns, has been providing heat to the Twin Cities campus for nearly 30 years. In 2006, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency approved the University's request to burn biomass, specifically oat hulls, at the plant. Locally grown, oat hulls are a renewable energy source that does not contribute to the net carbon dioxide production from carbon-based fuels such as natural gas. Burning a projected 25,000 tons of oat hulls a year saves an estimated $2 million of the cost of heating the Twin Cities Campus annually. For more information, see Energy Management.