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Rensselaer’s Utility Bills Prompt New Efficiency Plan

February 13th, 2006 · 1 Comment

Last week Rensselaer’s student newspaper, The Poly, ran an article about Rensselaer’s negligently high energy consumption. The institute exceeded it’s nearly $9M energy consumption budget by about 45%, amounting to a $4.1M deficit, totaling a whopping $13M in energy.

The institute quickly responded with cheery meaningless solution statements, such as this gem by VP of Administration Claude Rounds, quoted as saying that the new plan will “‘re-activate, re-energize, and substantially expand energy reduction efforts’ already on campus.” Any such efforts already occurring on campus were virtually unknown to the author, although a sticker reminding occupants of a room to turn the lights out appeared in the author’s freshman year dormitory (in 2002). In addition, Mr. Round’s use of “re-energize” to describe the return of conservation efforts was not particularly funny considering the context.

For students at Rensselaer, this scenario is all too familiar: increasing costs justify an increase in tuition. However, considering that there are roughly 7,500 students total at Rensselaer, the $4M energy deficit works out to roughly $546 per person. That, remember, is just the deficit, and the original energy budget would have allotted roughly twice that for the entire year, or roughly $1,600 per year per student.

So, how does the institute intend to recover that $4 million? Enter the Tiger Team, a fusion between the power of an animal’s name and the predatory stealth of an efficiency expert. Of course, the name might be lame, but the institute has high expectations. The goal of the Tiger Team according to Rounds is to “conserve energy to the best extent possible with the cooperation and support of the entire campus”. Note that Rounds specifically blames the entire campus, rather than zero in on any one group that may be disproportionately consuming energy.

This is where the goals of the Tiger Team become a bit blurry though. The team “will be going through all the buildings on campus, improving the efficiency of airflow and temperature management and working to make significant improvements in comfort.” Of course, the team is going to have a hard time achieving both stated goals, because turning down the thermostat and airflow isn’t many people’s idea of a “significant improvement in comfort.”

The doublespeak continues on, such as the boastful claims about changes at the Student Union: “One of the adjustments made was to the Union’s main air movers which have been reduced to 70-80 percent of their normal operating speed. This reduction that should require about 40 percent less energy without causing any reduction in student comfort, according to Manager of Engineering Steve Angle, who is managing the energy conservation efforts.” How can turning an air mover down have no reduction in student comfort? Mr. Angle doesn’t claim that there will be a change in comfort, or even a slight change in comfort, he straight up says there will be no change in comfort whatsoever.

The changes already have had an insignificant impact. Again according to the Angle, the changes made over the winter break have already had an incredibly insignificant effect on the overall energy crisis, saying “the Institute expects to save $100,000 between residences and academic buildings.” Wow, they saved a whopping $100,000 in residence halls. Does the institute really expect to save another $4.1M by turning down their fans while they expect students to make lifestyle changes? Actually, the institute apparently only expects to save another $750,000 to $1M anyway, even with all these changes. It almost seems they’re going to spend more on the “Tiger Team” then they are going to save. Advocating energy conservation is extremely important to our sustainability as a society, but not when the energy savings represent a net overall loss.

So, what does the institute recommend community members do to pitch in to assist the conservation effort? Again from the article, “They published a new pamphlet with many simple conservation measures including using inkjet instead of laser printers, using stairs instead of elevators, and taking shorter showers to save hot water.”

Here are a few recommendations for the institute: first, turn down the power on the Falls Earth Station (a.k.a. RPI Cable TV) signal amplifiers. Trying to watch the Super Bowl was dreadful because of the poor signal quality. The audio was so clipped that it sounded like the announcers were coming through a megaphone. Every few minutes the signal would freeze and blank, likely because the TV was getting too much signal and the digital circuitry was interpreting it as noise (there was intense white brightness with weak contrast as well). Now that the Olympics are on, it’s just as annoying.

Next, turn off the streetlights that light the way up to Dr. Jackson’s house when she’s not there. Speaking of streetlights, maybe higher energy bills are in part due to the installation of new street lighting. At this very moment, one of the fields behind the field house is having new lighting installed. I like the idea of the light switches with infrared sensors that detect when a person is present. They are especially useful when a person wants security lighting only, since it allows someone to see where there is or where there was another person. There are probably plenty of lights that could be turned off which stay on all the time right now, with little or no reduction in student comfort.

Another option would be to install more windmills on campus. Surely, we have enough wind in Troy. Really, it’s too bad there is no such thing as snow power. There must be some engineer that can concoct a way to harness the untapped energy in falling snow.

Perhaps ask professors to teach with chalk, instead of using overhead projectors. Then again, maybe you could save more energy having professors use the overhead projectors with the room darkened, which enhances readability of the notes anyway.

Non-handicapped students should operate doors manually instead of using the handicap accessibility buttons. Like the elevators, many able bodied people are wasting energy all the time. Along the lines of mechanical energy saving, the parking gates in North lot and at the parking garage should be locked in the elevated position, since there is little competition for parking at either location in the first place. Deactivate the transponder system there as well, since the entire RF-ID system consumes energy. Give students keys to their dorms instead of wasteful electrified card access. On the subject of dorms, I’ll bet it seems pretty silly in retrospect to have built the Stackwyck buildings so that every apartment had it’s own electric heat pump, imagine running twelve air conditioning zones in each building year round independently, in each of five buildings, and then installing electric stoves in those apartments as well! I’ll bet those energy bills are pretty high.

The purpose of this article is not to seriously suggest that Rensselaer do any of the things that I’ve suggested. However, it’s ridiculous to ask students to take shorter showers and use inkjet printers when those two factors wouldn’t make nearly as much of a dent as some forethought would have. The Stackwyck apartments are the perfect example. You reap what you sow. Taking in just over $1M yearly over the thirty-plus year lives of the Stackwyck apartments apparently weren’t enough to pay for good windows, insulation, or a single central smart HVAC system overhaul, so now students are being asked to take shorter showers.

Make your own decision, and don’t get me wrong, conservation is cool. However, as they said, everyone has to do something. It’s like the kids game, follow the leader. Let’s see someone telling us to make sacrifices to make a sacrifice first so we know how to do it right.

Tags: Rensselaer (RPI)

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Gary // Mar 24, 2008 at 2:28 pm

    Sounds like something RPI would do.

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