U. of Minnesota to Go Dark This Winter Break

Minneapolis — During the week of Thanksgiving, I paid a visit to my alma mater, the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, to see how it manages energy use. There I met Mark A. Peterson, a senior controls engineer, who was on the phone with someone on the campus when I walked into his office.

“Today turned out to be a cold day with lots of heating issues,” he explained afterward.

While engineers like Mr. Peterson spend the winter making sure that people are warm in hundreds of buildings, he’s also looking for ways to control the campus heating bill.

The university, it turns out, has one of the largest and most sophisticated energy-management systems among national institutions. He showed me how these systems can not only set up scheduled times when supply fans should run, but also track when those fans are running beyond those times, perhaps because a mechanic left one on or because someone called get a fan turned on. The system also tracks how many dollars are flowing through those ventilation fans.

“Every week, we run this report showing that, boy, someone in Ferguson Hall was really running these fans,” he said, pointing at a computer screen. A chart there showed that while running outside of its scheduled 78 hours per week, a fan in Ferguson had cost the university an additional $26.

“That isn’t a lot,” Mr. Peterson said. “But you see that if this thing kept running, and you have a bunch of them, it really adds up.”

Given budget problems in Minnesota, the university needs to count every penny these days. My visit coincided with an announcement that the university would shut down most of its buildings and services over the winter break, a move that will save about $160,000. (Tim Post, from Minnesota Public Radio, reports that other Minnesota colleges, like the College of Saint Benedict, will also shut down over the break.)

Mr. Peterson showed me a part of the energy-management system that marked in blue the calendar days when the university would go dark. He also showed me an online meter, or “dashboard,” that tracks the energy used and money spent  in about 170 buildings on the Twin Cities campus. Check out the money flowing through the Malcom Moos Health Sciences Tower: about $340 an hour, or about $250,000 a month, when I took a look this morning.

The university shaved 5 percent off of its energy bill last year, said Jerome Malmquist, director of the energy-management unit, and saved more than $2-million. It is shooting for another 5 percent this year.

“There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit there, but it’s getting harder to grab it,” Mr. Malmquist said. His major challenge: When old buildings come down and new ones go up, the new ones inevitably use more energy. “It’s harder than hell to keep pace, to keep your carbon emissions and energy profile flat,” he said. “If you’re not cutting 5 percent a year, you’re just not keeping up.”

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