by Whitney Weeks
Most of us have done it at least once. A utility bill arrives in the
mail, and we stand and stare in shock at the amount due. Not long
after, the thermostat’s setting has been adjusted slightly, and a lamp
or two has been turned off.
Utility bills – including electricity, gas and water – are nothing new
to homeowners or to apartment renters, nor are they new to Vanderbilt.
From the price of gasoline for shuttles, police cars, plant operations
equipment and other vehicles to the price of coal burned at the
Vanderbilt Power Plant to the price of electricity used to meet the
majority of Vanderbilt’s energy needs, careful attention is given to
the price paid for and the amount of energy consumed by Vanderbilt.
In the course of a year, the university and Medical Center together
spend approximately $35 million on energy, according to Mark Petty,
Vanderbilt’s director of buildings and utilities. Electricity
represents the largest portion of that bill, though coal, natural gas
and water are also used to keep Vanderbilt running.
With several different fuel sources available, Vanderbilt is in the
unique position of being able to manage some of its energy costs
depending on which source is used. The university maintains its own
power plant, which produces energy using diesel turbines, a coal plant
and a steam generator, all of which play significant roles in meeting
the energy needs of Vanderbilt.
“We carefully examine and see which fuel is cheaper which day – coal,
diesel, electricity – and supply energy to the campus accordingly,”
This means that, just as many individual consumers are paying closer
attention to ways to manage rising fuel costs, so are larger consumers
In a residence, all the members of a household can play a part in
keeping utility bills as low as possible by turning off lights in empty
rooms or turning off unused appliances. Likewise, members of the
Vanderbilt “household” can be involved in and made more aware of its
energy usage. Additionally, there is a growing interest in and
awareness among members of the Vanderbilt community about energy usage
This increased level of awareness about energy is important to the
university, as rising consumption contributes to Vanderbilt’s overall
energy costs nearly as much as rising fuel costs. With construction
projects occurring across campus and plans to continue to grow
facilities – academic, research and patient care-related – scheduled
for years to come, consumer behavior becomes increasingly critical to
managing Vanderbilt’s fuel expenditures.
“We [Plant Operations] really bring the university very cheap
utilities, but it’s becoming more of a community effort,” said Petty.
“We can’t control the price of coal or gasoline or electricity, but we
can control how much we consume, and that is very much an individual
and community effort.”
Signs around campus point to a similar feeling as more emphasis
continues to be placed on energy-saving construction, the purchase of
Energy Star office equipment, and the involvement of faculty, staff and
students in examining Vanderbilt’s energy sources and
This article is the first in a series about the economics of energy at Vanderbilt.