President's Message 1st Quarter 2017

By Robert Thornton posted 06-16-2017 20:38

  

From District Energy Magazine, First Quarter, 2017


Rob Thornton

What can we learn about energy sustainability and resiliency by returning to college? Why is it that college and university campuses are often cited as the best examples of community energy efficiency, and what can they teach our military bases, health care institutions and urban centers? Are college campuses unique in their scale and mission or can their successful energy strategies be transferred to other segments? 

IDEA is fortunate to have hundreds of college and university energy leaders as active, contributing members. What brings them together each year like the swallows returning to Capistrano? As we anticipate IDEA's 30th Annual Campus Energy Conference in Miami, Feb. 20-24, it would be tempting to conclude the Florida climate is the main attraction for the 800 (or more) expected attendees. But experience tells us that it is actually the warmth and collegiality of the participants that draws more and more members each year. Peer exchange among talented professional is always cited as a major benefit of our conferences. Friendly competition breeds a common interest in sharing successes but also in disclosing the occasional unexpected findings - which often turn out to be the most enlightening. 

The campus energy conference offers ample opportunities for IDEA member institutions to team with their consultants and suppliers to share experiences and explain how they achieved certain outcomes. All too often, their herculean efforts to build complex new energy facilities on tight footprints and challenging schedules are underappreciated back at home and even derided for the temporary disruptions they create. It can be cathartic to share a successful project Gantt chart with a roomful of empathetic colleagues while explaining the impact of permit delays and utility interconnect negotiations. 

What is it about our postsecondary institutions that inspires their bold investments in infrastructure? First, as institutions of higher learning, most have embraced a long-term view of the future and are committed indefinitely to their current locations. This certainly differentiates colleges from U.S. industry where investment horizons are unnaturally short and borderline myopic. This corporate focus on immediate gratification and quarterly earnings has been an Achilles heel for the U.S. economy, forestalling innovation and productive use of capital that would reduce energy expenses and conserve valuable resources. All too often, solid energy projects fail to launch due to risk aversion and unreasonable financial hurdle rates. Meanwhile, campuses capture and enjoy the ongoing financial benefits from economically prudent investments in energy efficiency. 

Second, college and university campuses have the obvious advantage of economies of scale, frequently encompassing 100 to 200 buildings. Despite the apparent advantages of having a single owner, a campus community may have multiple tiers of decision-making. Very often the central utilities department is asked to prove the financial viability of connecting a new building, often competing with standard in-building solutions. A big advantage of district energy is the ability to aggregate diverse energy appetites, such as research labs with high energy intensity, residential space with diurnal thermal needs, arenas and event space with scheduled uses, and classrooms with intermittent needs. Centralizing supply avoids redundant and unproductive capital equipment in individual buildings while allowing the central energy plant to integrate and optimize thermal and electricity production. Campus district energy systems often supply an affiliated teaching hospital that demands the high reliability and redundancy that only district energy/combined heat and power can provide. These same scale and diversity advantages can be achieved in a city with disparate building owners. 

Third, university campuses are often a dominant economic engine and employer in their own right, giving them substantial political clout that earns them the deference of local utilities and governments. Universities may even predate their incumbent electric utility and enjoy unique grandfathered rights not afforded individual buildings. Generally speaking, universities and utilities report cordial operating relationships, but differences sometimes surface that reflect the complex nature of district energy/CHP microgrids as resources. For example, the local utility may perceive a university's desire for more resilient supply from its own campus CHP system as a threat to revenue. And while universities are often cautious about exercising political muscle, they should seek common cause with regulators if the local utility counters with onerous preconditions for interconnection or unreasonable standby charges intended to protect their own franchise. 

The valuable lessons learned from our campus members reinforce the urgency of engaging in dialogue with regulators on the importance of local generation, especially for dense, mission-critical users like research and health care institutions. The example of the Princeton University microgrid maintaining operations for first responders during Superstorm Sandy has been widely reported. What is sometimes overlooked and undervalued is how Prince-ton's district energy/CHP microgrid also supports the regional power grid during routine operations and summertime peak conditions. Princeton operates in parallel with the electricity grid, purchasing power when real-time prices are advantageous and avoiding expensive power when peak demand on the grid drives rates up. With its sophisticated microgrid and control scheme, Princeton has cut its peak demand for the 150-building campus from 27 MW to under 2 MW on a hot August afternoon, alleviating strain on the regional grid and improving conditions for its neighbors and the local utility. The locational value of the Princeton microgrid really needs more analysis so that utilities and regulators alike can properly assess both the strategic and grid values. The Cornell University CHP system has had a similar positive impact on the upstate New York grid, reducing its "tag" from 30 MW to under 2 MW during periods of supply and distribution strain.

In addition to benefitting the regional grid, university district energy/ CHP investments have proven very effective at cutting regional greenhouse gas emissions. Cornell University's transition from coal to natural gas CHP was a cornerstone of its campus climate action plan. Recently, Harvard University released an important 2016 progress report outlining how it achieved a 30 percent reduction in campus greenhouse gas emissions from a 2006 baseline by implementing more than 1,600 energy efficiency measures, cutting campus energy use by 10 percent despite adding over 3 million sq ft of space and boosting energy intensity in existing spaces for research and other uses. (Excluding growth, the energy reduction was 23 percent). The single greatest contributor to emissions reductions were investments in efficiency and reliability in the university's district energy systems serving hundreds of campus buildings. Fuel-switching from oil to natural gas at the Harvard-owned Blackstone Steam Plant, and the expanded use of CHP, accounted for the largest portion of emissions reduction, with new backpressure turbines, boilers and other efficiencies contributing to an overall reduction from campus utilities of 20,500 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent - equal to taking 4,300 cars off the road annually. These positive environmental gains do not yet include the recent commissioning of a 12 MW gas combustion turbine to maximize efficient heat and power production on campus. 

Over the past decade, hundreds of other colleges and universities have firmly embraced sustainability strategies to reduce carbon footprints and demonstrate institutional environmental commitments. Dozens of IDEA institutions have invested in new CHP as the principal emissions reduction strategy. Concurrently, engaged college students have come to expect - or demand - environmental progress at their institutions. Occasionally, student idealism leads to pursuit of perfection that may run counter to pragmatic, economically viable energy solutions. In my view, operating a large campus exclusively on solar and wind may be laudable but not necessarily feasible. Of course this depends on factors such as physical location, climatic conditions, regional grid characteristics, campus density and other attributes. But we should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Campus CHP, fueled by natural gas, can achieve efficiencies exceeding 80 percent, providing greatly enhanced resiliency and helping to balance regional intermittent renewables. Thermal storage is another strategic asset on many campuses. It's important to educate member communities and student constituents on industry best practices including near-term emission reductions already achieved at many IDEA member systems. 

Another area that merits attention is using the campus as classroom, opening the doors of the central plant to students, clubs and the local community (see "Telling our story" on page 30 of this issue). Many IDEA member systems regularly host campus sustainability clubs or engineering classes for plant tours and orientation. This is especially valuable as students will ultimately graduate to assume positions of influence in government, finance and industry where an appreciation for their campus energy system could encourage advocacy in their subsequent professional life. For example, FERC Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur fondly recounted her undergraduate days at Princeton while touring its campus microgrid recently. We have seen campus utilities actively engage with students by providing energy dashboards in dormitories to provide real-time feedback on energy consumption. Energy usage competitions between dormitories can foster resource conservation and more energy savings. We greatly appreciate when a campus member celebrates an expansion or upgrade by inviting local government officials to tour the plant or cut a ribbon. 

We have many case studies from universities where mission-critical research is supported by dependable, local sources of generation and supply. We need to share these stories with municipal economic development officials and mayors who find themselves wanting to offer more resilient and sustainable energy services to compete for high-value companies and employers. Today, it's not solely the price of energy that's at issue; savvy employers are also mindful of the carbon intensity, locational proximity, resiliency and security of supply. They also understand the real costs of business interruption due to aging infrastructure. Cities without innovative energy resources - or flexible and reliable public transportation options - will find it increasingly difficult to compete for tomorrow's high-value employers. 

All these topics come together under one roof at the annual IDEA campus energy conference where experience, insight and peer exchange converge. How wonderful would it be if we could effectively transfer these great lessons from our campuses out into the larger world to enlighten and encourage military bases, health care institutions and urban sustainability directors? 

I hope you'll make plans to join us in Miami next month. As always, it's sure to bring out the best and inspire us all to move forward. 



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