Accelerating the Transition to a Clean Energy Future with Energy Efficiency

Today, solar panels, electric cars, energy storage, among so many other clean technologies, are generating positive attention as we continue to search for ways to decarbonize the economy and tackle climate change. But one important area in this conversation is sometimes overlooked: energy efficiency.

Energy efficiency means using less energy to accomplish a similar or better outcome, and it can generally be divided into two categories: 1.) using technology to reduce energy usage (such as installing energy-efficient lighting) or 2.) making behavioral changes on site (for instance, turning off the lights when leaving a room). This may not excite one in the same way as purchasing a new Tesla or installing solar panels on a room, but energy efficiency is an essential part of developing a cleaner energy grid. Its benefits are considerable, particularly for large-scale energy consumers like private universities and colleges.

While there are obvious economic and ecological benefits in adopting energy efficiency practices, there exists a psychological benefit, as well. A study conducted in September 2020 by YouGov and the international non-profit, The Climate Group, estimates that more than 55% of Americans consider climate change a more serious and long-term threat to society than COVID-19, and this despite the fact that climate change remains a highly politicized (and therefore divisive) topic. The study also found that nearly 70% believe that climate action is just as, if not more, important now compared to before the virus outbreak. The data suggests that as stressed out as we are about the immediate and long-term effects of the pandemic, the threat of climate change looms even larger.

Consider of all the measures we have adopted to keep our campus communities safe during the pandemic—everything from revising our cleaning protocols to installing touchless technologies, to providing response-ready care for the physical and psychological needs of our students, faculty, and staff. If the threat of climate change is a comparable source of anxiety to that of the pandemic, must we not also address climate change with the same level of investment, ingenuity, and teamwork? If it is a moral obligation to protect our campus community from the pandemic, can we not say the same of climate change?

The good news is that numerous private universities and colleges have adopted energy efficiency practices in order to combat climate change. To do so helps to allay anxieties within the campus community about climate change, and with projects both big and small on campuses across the country, we are likewise able to trace the far-reaching economic impact that such projects generate.

Reducing Energy Use at Allegheny College

Allegheny College is a small liberal arts school in northwestern Pennsylvania, located 30 miles from Lake Erie. In 2011, Allegheny was invited by the Obama White House to participate in the U.S. Department of Energy’s “Better Buildings Challenge, which sought to reduce building energy intensity by 20% by 2020. The institution has noted that while improving energy efficiency on campus is a crucial component of carbon footprint management, the task itself has been a challenge, not least of all because many buildings on the historic campus are 100 to 200 years old. Since 2011, however, Allegheny has successfully managed to improve campus energy efficiency by 19.2% despite increasing total square footage and the number of its residential students.

We see in the example of Allegheny’s energy efficiency improvements a model of both pragmatism and ingenuity, in which energy-saving opportunities have been addressed building by building. For instance, in order to create space for its growing Environmental Science department, Allegheny made Carr Hall 23% more efficient through improvements such as better heat recovery and energy-efficient lighting. In the heart of its Carr Hall Garden, a greenhouse was also constructed, one featuring a switchgrass pellet stove for heating and a neon-pink roof of luminescent solar concentrator (LSC) panels. The dye-coated panels, a novel photovoltaic technology, capture and convert wavelengths of light that plants cannot use into electricity while allowing photosynthetically active light to reach the plants below.

Allegheny has also added insulation across campus; boilers, chillers, and lighting have been retrofitted, and the institution has even considered how to optimize the density of use in its buildings. Due to extreme seasonal temperatures, the task of efficiently heating and cooling its buildings has been a challenge. A solution has been found in geothermal (known otherwise as “geo-exchange) heat pumps, which harness the constant temperature of the earth rather than using the more extreme outside air temperatures. Four geothermal heat pump systems have been installed across campus. Moreover, Allegheny generates 8,500 kilowatts of solar energy on campus each year, and this is equal to the carbon sequestration ability of seven acres of U.S. forests. Allegheny’s 24-panel Energy Challenge array was funded entirely by the savings realized through student efforts during its Annual Energy Challenge.

Students at Allegheny are eager to play a role in their school’s efforts to positively impact climate change. In this way, they are demonstrating how anxieties about climate change can be positively transferred via a culture of action. For example, a group of students helped set sustainability goals for a new residence hall project and provided feedback on its design. As a result, the LEED Gold-certified building has energy-efficient light fixtures controlled by sensors, energy-saving motors in building equipment, large windows that allow sunlight in and bright colored paint to reflect it around rooms, as well as other clean energy and water conservation features. Allegheny College issued a bond to cover the building’s construction and will benefit from energy savings for many years to come.

Georgetown University, a National Leader in Energy Efficiency

Georgetown University of Washington, D.C., like that of Allegheny College, has made a commitment to energy efficiency and conservation across campus. In 2008, Georgetown’s President, John J. DeGioia, pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% by 2020. This has since proven to be an overwhelming success. For instance, in 2014, Georgetown reduced its carbon footprint by 71% through a combination of energy efficiency in its facilities and the procurement of renewable energy certificates (RECs) for 100% of its power, thereby meeting its emissions goal six years in advance of its target. Today, Georgetown continues to actively explore and pursue opportunities to further its impact on clean energy and climate through a combination of efficiency, conservation, and investments in new renewable power.

Georgetown is one of the top renewable energy purchasers among universities and college campuses in the country partly because it has committed to use energy-efficient practices in all new building construction; further, it regularly implements building energy audits, and it invests in energy efficiency retrofits in buildings. Such is the culture of sustainability at Georgetown that it proudly serves as home to the student-led “Solar Street,” an 18 kilowatts solar PV array on the rooftops of six historic rowhouses at the campus’s Main Gates.

Solar Street produces nearly 20,000 kilowatts of electricity each year, with solar power providing 27% of the electricity. It likewise provides the same carbon reduction benefits as planting 333 new trees or removing 44 cars from the road for an entire year. The project garnered attention from Gary Guzy in 2013, who operated as deputy director and general counsel for the White House Council on Environmental Quality. At the ceremony marking the completion of the project, Guzy noted that Georgetown serves as “a model for how universities across the country are seeing clean energy [for they have] recognized how sustainability can enhance the quality of community life, how it can save money, [and] how it can be consistent with the university’s educational and research mission.”

In addition to Solar Street, a student-run $1.5 million fund provides grants and resources for energy efficiency projects such as LED lighting retrofits in the Hoya Court campus dining hall and in the parking lot of the Rafik B. Hariri building. Programs like the “Switch It Off Challenge,” a student competition to save energy between Residence Halls, and the GU Campus Energy Conservation Program, a voluntary curtailment program to engage faculty and staff, help to involve the campus community in reducing energy demand and cutting carbon.

Georgetown’s Central Utility Plant, which supplies the Main and Medical Campuses with district heating and cooling to control building temperatures, now uses centralized boilers and chillers. By piping steam and chilled water across campus, the university achieves significant efficiencies through scale. Similarly, Georgetown’s Office of Utilities and Energy Management routinely upgrades the Central Plant, providing ongoing efficiencies. As recently as 2017, projects including the installation of a new efficient chiller, variable frequency drives for water pumps, utility plant LED lighting retrofits and insulation of chilled water pipes are each saving energy at the central plant. A 2014 boiler fan upgrade, plus steam trap repairs and a de-aerator project likewise cut an estimated 2.508 metric tons of CO2e, which is the equivalent to removing approximately 538 cars from the road each year.

Building Energy Retrofits at Georgetown

As part of their ongoing operations, Georgetown’s Facilities Management implements building energy retrofits. Examples of recent energy-efficient retrofits include the following:

  • LED-retrofits for lighting in buildings are performed on an ongoing basis as of 2017. One such project includes a while-building LED retrofit of White Gravenor, which is expected to save as much as 200,000 kilowatts of electricity per year. As of 2020, LED upgrades have been performed for nearly 500,000 square feet of building area.
  • In August 2016, Georgetown completed a retrofit of its Alumni Square residence hall. This entailed replacing all of the gas furnaces and air conditioners with more efficient models, and replacing the water heaters in each individual unit with shared, tankless water heaters. The upgrades have saved the university nearly $18,000 per year. Emissions have also been reduced by 382 CO2 per year, or the equivalent of annual emissions from over 36 average homes.
  • In 2014, a multi-building steam trap replacement project saved about 902 metric tons of CO2e, equal to the removal of 190 cars from the road each year.
  • In 2012, a lighting retrofit in the Southwest Garage helped to cut approximately 1 million pounds of C02 annually, the equivalent of taking about 55 U.S. homes off the grid.

HVAC Improvements and the COVID-19 Pandemic

In light of ongoing threats posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Georgetown has adopted several measures to maintain a safe atmosphere for students, faculty, and staff. Facilities Management has worked to improve the HVAC system so as to minimize the spread of viruses through the HVAC system. To manage this, a plan of action has been set in motion, one that includes ongoing maintenance, recurring quality control checks, as well as measurement and verification activities to ensure compliance with best practices.

Georgetown has also teamed with several contractors to check and verify HVAC operations to better prepare for occupancy, to look for ways to improve the current system ventilation, and to avoid recirculation from zone to zone. Further, more than 52 units have been retrofitted to incorporate filtration that is efficient at capturing airborne viruses in several campus buildings where students gather for dining, recreation, athletics, or research. UV-C filtration will be used on more than 90% of the units retrofitted. The units were chosen carefully and in consideration of areas where face coverings and/or social distancing may not always be feasible.

Putting an End to Wasted Energy

Over two-thirds of the energy we currently consume in the U.S. is wasted, and college campuses are just as culpable. In campus buildings, which consume more than 80% of the energy used by universities, improved energy efficiency can drastically cut overall energy use. The examples of Allegheny College and Georgetown College serve as a reminder of the many ways in which energy use can be reduced, thereby serving the community at large and also aligning with the institutions’ core values.



About the Author
David Vinson, PUPN staff writer, has a PhD in English with specializations in transatlantic literature and cultural studies. He is a committed scholar, teacher, husband, and dad. If you ever meet David, avoid the subject of soccer. His fandom borders on the truly obnoxious.