Driving Efficiency in Legacy Buildings on University Campuses

by Joel Freehling

Higher education, though rarely considered a “hard to reach” customer segment for utility-led efficiency programs, is often underserved relative to the savings potential. Finding the unrealized potential requires a systemic understanding of where the opportunities exist and how to develop innovative strategies for unlocking the savings potential.

In Chicago, higher education is one of the three largest sources of carbon emissions within the commercial-building sector (along with multi-tenant commercial offices and health care facilities). Reducing energy usage within the higher education sector is a key strategy for the City of Chicago in meeting its carbon reduction goals. Consequently, a local nonprofit, Global Philanthropy Partnership, in conjunction with the City of Chicago, created the Alliance to Retrofit Chicago Higher Education (ARCH) to help promote efficiency within the sector. The program is funded by several local foundations, including the Joyce Foundation, the Chicago Community Trust, and the Comer Foundation. To date, the program has secured nearly $400,000 in foundation funding for the effort, which has been leveraged with utility-sponsored funding for implementation of specific projects. The Chicago Bridge & Iron Company serves as the project manager for the initiative.

Initially, ARCH convened 11 of the largest public and private colleges and universities in the Chicago area to collaborate on and explore common challenges, opportunities, and mechanisms for realizing savings on their campuses. Collectively, the ARCH participants manage more than 800 buildings and spend well over $100 million annually on energy. Thus, the cohort presents an ideal forum for exploring key barriers and opportunities, and for developing innovative mechanisms to spur investment in efficiency.

One of the early findings was that, although all participants have stringent energy efficiency guidelines on new buildings or deep renovations, significant energy savings opportunities still reside in the hundreds of decades-old existing properties for which there are no immediate plans for major renovations. These buildings have to compete for capital, resources, and donor interest with higher priority projects. To realize the savings potential in these older properties, alternative strategies are needed. Among the most successful are creating dedicated capital pools; launching municipal-led energy saving challenges that incorporate higher education institutions; and developing new utility program models, such as aggregating properties under 150,000 square feet within retro-commissioning and monitoring-based commissioning programs. Within ARCH, these strategies are projected to lead to savings of nearly 20 million kilowatt-hours and 200,000 therms.

Another key lesson is that the overall high level of participation in utility-led incentive programs masks important differences among subcategories—whether large research institutions, small private universities, or community colleges. Our experience suggests that each subcategory presents unique opportunities, and that realizing energy savings from the higher education sector overall can be greatly enhanced by understanding the differences and tailoring solutions to them. Although the small private colleges are the most underserved segment, the most cost-effective savings will come from the large research universities, given their density of labs and other highly energy-intensive properties.

Just as critical, ARCH has demonstrated the value of leveraging utility-led incentive dollars with foundation funding. Doing so allows the utility programs to incentivize implementation of energy-saving measures and strategies that were developed through foundation supported activities.

Another important role of ARCH is to facilitate intraschool discussions. Often the key players within each institution—sustainability directors, facilities managers, and finance executives—do not connect regularly. This interface is essential to ensuring that smart, strategic investment in energy efficiency projects takes place.

Such an approach is easily replicable across the country, given the interest among schools to collaborate, the vast numbers of older, inefficient campus properties, and the interest in the sector by utility-sponsored efficiency programs.