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How West Coast universities, colleges grapple with 'literal overheating' of buildings amid recent heat wave

By District Energy posted 11-03-2022 09:49


USA Today


Within the first few weeks of moving into her dorm building at the University of Nevada, Reno, Mei Wong found living in her room to be unbearable.

As temperatures soared to the high 90s and 100s during first couple of weeks of September, Wong and her roommate struggled to settle in their room. Since her dorm is an older building and has no air conditioning, Wong had to run four fans in her room throughout the week.

“We couldn't do anything without sweating,” Wong told USA TODAY.

How did campus reduce energy usage?

Hot weather is "a natural part of life in the low deserts of Arizona," Alexander Kohnen, Arizona State University's vice president of facilities development and management, told USA TODAY.

While air conditioning is a standard in buildings and people who live in the region understand heat exposure awareness, the increasing frequency of extreme heat waves has impacted the university's campus in several ways.

Currently, the university is able to cool the campus through three district energy plants with over 32,000 tons of capacity, according to Kohnen. Solar arrays are also used to provide shade in parking areas, walkways, and a softball stadium.

Changes to the central plant, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning operations at the University of California, San Diego, were implemented during the heat wave and led to limited higher overall space temperatures in many campus buildings, according to university spokesperson Leslie Sepuka. Sepuka noted that recurring heat waves place a high power demand on state and regional electric grids, prompting potential grid instability and power loss which can be seen during scheduled rolling blackouts or unscheduled failures. But UC San Diego is "protected" from these power grid instabilities due to the campus' microgrid system, Sepuka said. 

Many campus buildings at the University of Washington were designed to be reliant on passive and natural ventilation strategies, according to university spokesperson Victor Balta. Only in recent years has mechanical cooling been implemented in larger campus spaces.

Balta said climate change has modified the university's need for cooling and the university has new design conditions for the next few decades that account for prolonged heat events.

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