Cornell heats up, cools down and plans to save big with $46M investment in energy conservation

Until recently, the Cornell Store's heating and ventilation controls were so outdated that they could only be turned on or off -- with nothing in between.

"There were some areas where your hair would actually blow in a breeze because there was so much air flow," said Kevin Drake, Cornell Business Services' assistant director.

In December, new programmable digital heating and cooling controls were installed as part of a $230,000 upgrade. They are projected to cut energy costs by as much as $75,000 each year, about 49 percent of the store's energy bill, Drake estimates.

The upgrade is just one of dozens stemming from Cornell's recent approval of a plan for an investment of up to $46 million in energy conservation, part of the Administrative Streamlining Program's facilities initiative.

By 2015, that investment will save Cornell some $5 million each year in variable fuel and electricity costs and reduce energy use by up to 20 percent. The investment will also expand Cornell's Energy Conservation Initiative and help the university take a significant step toward meeting its Climate Action Plan commitment to slash its carbon footprint to zero by 2050.

"One of the largest possibilities for reducing our carbon footprint is making our buildings work better," said Lanny Joyce, director of energy management in Cornell's Department of Energy & Sustainability, which is leading the conservation work.

The investment is the latest chapter in Cornell's conservation history, which dates to 1972. "This is something we've been advocating for and doing for a while now. It's the right thing to do for sustainability and cost efficiency," said Vice President for Facilities Services Kyu-Jung Whang. From 2002 to 2008, the university's Energy Conservation Initiative focused on the endowed and contract colleges' academic, research and teaching buildings. A 2009-10 reassessment, recently approved by Cornell's trustees, expanded the scope to the professional schools, the Division of Student and Academic Services and off-campus buildings.

Funding for the entire program includes university funds and short-term debt, $9 million from the State University of New York Construction Fund, and conservation incentives from the New York State Research and Development Authority.

Most of the projects involve lighting retrofits and upgrades for controls of heating, ventilation and air conditioning in spaces as diverse as animal care rooms and greenhouses to Statler Hotel kitchens.

For example, leftover heat from the Combined Heat and Power Project will soon provide the energy to dehumidify the fragile materials in the Kroch Library's Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections and shut off an electricity hungry chiller system that used to run 24/7 year-round.

Other projects focus on equipment, such as growth chambers, and greenhouses. Retrofits of lighting and refrigeration in plant growth chambers in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) will lower energy costs by 60 percent. A pilot project in Guterman Laboratory using new dimmable high-pressure sodium lighting in a greenhouse is the first step in a project that could potentially cut by half electricity use in the Ithaca campus's 200,000 square feet of greenhouses.

"The reduction in our pilot growth chamber retrofit was so dramatic that they wanted to double- and triple-check it," said Joyce. Adjustments to laboratory ventilation will also reap big savings; fume hoods and laboratory ventilation cause as much as half of all energy use on campus.

The Department of Energy & Sustainability is also creating content and providing assistance for programs to educate people about the cost of energy use and its environmental impact. CALS faculty, staff and students have proven they're up to the challenge. Participants in a pilot project in six buildings have pledged to take such environmentally conscientious actions as switching off lights, shutting down computers and composting, as part of the CALS Green competition launched in October. Their combined commitments should save about 530,180 pounds of carbon and as much as $60,000 this year.

"We want to teach people how to act more miserly with energy," Joyce said. "The real frontier will be to change behavior."

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Claudia Wheatley