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Getting schooled in clean energy

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Big institutions can flex a lot of muscle when it comes to buying energy, since they use a lot of it. They can solicit bids or negotiate with suppliers to get lower prices. And they can use their influence and buying power to promote renewable energy development, a practice that has become common for operations as disparate as factories and hospitals.

And leaders of the statewide SUNY system, the largest higher education system in the country, want to use their institutional clout to, as they frame it, lead on climate action through ramped-up energy efficiency projects and renewable energy use and development. SUNY's 64 campuses include community colleges and research universities.

Officials with SUNY and several state energy agencies have developed a Clean Energy Roadmap for state colleges and universities. As part of the plan, the campuses are expected to:

• Get all of their electricity from renewables and energy storage;

• Cut greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels, and to do it by 2030;

• Evaluate whether any new buildings can be built to meet net-zero carbon emissions standards;

• Extensively retrofit existing buildings with updated equipment and make them far more energy efficient;

• Provide students with training relevant to the clean energy workforce.

Those goals may sound lofty, but some campuses are already close. For example, The College at Brockport is already getting almost all of its electricity from renewable sources, says Kevin Rice, director of the physical plant at the school and its energy manager. The college's account manager at National Grid, the utility company that serves the campus, has told him that the customers in this end of Upstate get most of their power from the hydroelectric generators in Niagara Falls.

"Really, the entire system has been working on it for a few years now," Rice says.

The college also has solar arrays on top of two buildings, though the systems don't produce enough power to meet all of those buildings' needs, Rice says.

"We are constantly looking at what we can do with solar," he says.

Monroe Community College officials are waiting for further information from SUNY headquarters to determine how it can be part of the initiative, says spokesperson Cynthia Cooper Mapes. But the school has been making energy saving efforts big and small.

When MCC bought a cluster of buildings from Kodak and renovated them for MCC's new downtown campus, they built the facility to LEED Gold standards. Several Brighton campus buildings have also been built or renovated to meet LEED Gold standards: the Performing Arts Center, Gleason Hall of Science and Technology, and a building that houses public safety, facilities, and purchasing offices. The Louis S. and Molly B. Wolk Center for Excellence in Nursing was built to LEED Silver standards.

The LEED standards are construction and building performance benchmarks that incorporate criteria such as energy efficiency, storm-water management, and proximity to mass transit. They're developed and overseen by the US Green Building Council.

Monroe Community College is also updating older lighting fixtures to LED technology as part of ongoing classroom and office renovations, Cooper Mapes says. "On capital projects, it is now the standard to install only LED lighting," she says.

The school also provides electric vehicle charging stations for student and employee use. There are six stations at the Brighton campus and two at the Applied Technologies Center on West Henrietta Road. Four chargers will be installed at the downtown campus this summer, Cooper Mapes says. Students and employees currently don't have to pay to use the chargers, she says.

In terms of education, MCC has a sustainability associate's degree program and certificate programs in solar thermal technology as well as sustainability.

Brockport has a very thorough approach for slashing its energy use, which reflects the kind of mindset the SUNY Clean Energy Roadmap calls for. One of the college's programs, in fact, is used as an example in Roadmap document.

The College at Brockport received a $400,000 state grant last summer to test a "real-time energy management" training program for the college's plant engineering staff, Rice says.

The school has a complex energy management system that collects more than 20,000 data points across the campus, all of which are monitored by computers. Staff can see everything from how efficiently a pump is working to whether a building fan is on or off, and they can make constant adjustments, Rice says. This past fall and winter, 16 Brockport staff members received intensive training on the system.

The state is watching Brockport's program because it's interested in rolling it out to other departments, he says.

Over the last few years, The College at Brockport has also systematically replaced existing building systems with high-efficiency equipment. Natural gas-powered boilers and electric-powered chillers have been swapped out for better performing equipment, and the pumps that move heated or chilled water through buildings have been replaced with variable-speed drives, which offer greater control over heating and cooling.

The campus has "hundreds and hundreds" of electric motors that power exhaust fans small and large, Rice says, and it's been replacing them with high-efficiency ones. And crews have replaced all manner of older light fixtures – including street and parking lot lamps – with LEDs.

The College at Brockport will also install eight electric vehicle charging ports over the next couple of months, Rice says. The chargers will be available to staff and students, and there will be a minimal fee to use them, Rice says.

System-wide, SUNY has decreased its greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent in the last decade, according to a press release sent out last week regarding its Clean Energy Road Map. It's ramping up efforts in light of new state renewable energy and energy efficiency requirements which require, among other things, that the state's utilities get 70 percent of their electricity from renewables by 2030.

As the largest higher ed system in the US, "we have a responsibility to lead and be an example of how to reduce our carbon footprint by adopting innovative energy efficiency and renewable energy technology," SUNY chancellor Kristina Johnson said in the press release.

Soon, The College at Brockport will start work in four of its buildings to replace fluorescent lights to LED fixtures. It'll be a $474,000 project, though National Grid is covering $97,000 of the costs, Rice says.

The college and the utility have worked up some numbers to show what impact the upgrades will have, and in doing that, they've demonstrated just how meaningful straightforward building performance projects can be.

The efficiency gains from the project will mean a reduction in campus carbon emissions by an estimated 812,400 pounds a year. That's roughly equivalent to the emissions of 78 cars. The new fixtures will also save an estimated 738,558 kilowatt hours of electricity annually, equivalent to the yearly electricity consumption of 63 average homes.

The upgrades will pay for themselves in eight years, and will last more than three decades, if not longer, Rice says.

Rice says he's happy to have a role in the efforts. He likens the energy efficiency and clean energy efforts to planting a tree: It's not something you do for the current generation but for the ones that follow.

"When I look at the grand scheme and take the long view, my children and my grandchildren, that's who it's really going to help," Rice says. "The things I'm doing today – myself and my staff – it adds up. And if we don't do it, who will?"