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Campus asked to conserve electricity in anticipation of long, hot summer

Posted in NEWS on Monday, June 25th, 2007

[Originally published in The Vanderbilt Register]

By Kara Furlong

June 21 marked the official start of summer, and though the daylight hours have begun their slow but steady decline toward fall, summer – and its heat – are far from over.

That has some Vanderbilt administrators thinking about the university’s energy consumption, and they are asking members of the campus community to play a significant role in conservation efforts.

“Considering the dry weather we are already having and the hot weather we are expected to have this summer, the likelihood of an electrical curtailment in July or August is very high,” said Mark Petty, assistant vice chancellor for plant operations.

A curtailment is a limit placed on electrical use during peak consumption periods, such as the dog days of summer. Because of its size and level of consumption, Vanderbilt is able to purchase a type of electricity called limited interruptible power (LIP) from the Tennessee Valley Authority at a discounted rate – one that saves the university around $2 million each year. However, its LIP contract requires that Vanderbilt stop consuming electricity beyond a certain amount at designated times. During these curtailments, Vanderbilt must reduce its regular electrical consumption and rely on standby power, or purchase the needed electricity from TVA at four or more times the normal rate.

Under the LIP agreement, TVA can call for curtailments three times a year for up to 15 days at a time. These reductions allow TVA to better meet power demands elsewhere in Middle Tennessee, as well as save money.

For example, drought conditions throughout the region over the past month have prohibited TVA’s ability to produce inexpensive hydroelectric power.

“When it’s dry like this, the lack of rainfall within the Tennessee Valley’s system means there’s not enough water to produce electricity through the dams,” Petty said. “That means they’ve got to go out on the market and buy more expensive electricity to meet customer needs. What we could see at some point is the TVA saying, ‘The electricity we have to buy is so expensive that it’s going to be cheaper to curtail our customers.’”

In 2005, hurricanes Katrina and Rita shut down natural gas refineries along the Gulf Coast on the heels of an exceptionally hot summer. Vanderbilt faced a pair of curtailments, the first coinciding with the weekend students returned to campus for the fall semester. “We were dreading that particular weekend because of the curtailment,” Petty said. “With all the extra doors open on campus, all the air conditioners working extra hard, we were very concerned that we would not be able to make our limits, but we did.”

Each year, Petty and his staff sweat – figuratively speaking – the prospect of faculty and students returning to campus en masse at one of the warmest times of the year. “There’s a significant load difference on Vanderbilt’s electrical grid from Aug. 23 to Aug. 28,” he said. “Once the students arrive and bring their computers and refrigerators and stereos and TVs and all of the things that they bring, there’s a significant jump in our electrical usage.”

In anticipation of this increased demand, Vanderbilt is asking all members of campus to start reducing energy use now. Simple but effective measures include raising thermostat settings in offices and buildings to 78 degrees; turning off equipment such as monitors, printers, fax machines and copiers when not in use; shutting down computers at the end of the work day; and turning off or reducing lighting in offices, conference rooms and hallways.

These small, individual efforts can add up, according to Petty.

“It’s been our experience from past curtailments that we can reduce electrical consumption on campus anywhere from 8 to 12 percent,” he said. “In economic terms, that’s around $200,000 for a single curtailment period.” Even for a multi-billion-dollar organization such as Vanderbilt, “That’s nothing to scoff at,” he said.

But it’s not just about money, according to Petty. “Electrical systems are so interconnected that it doesn’t take a great deal to have a major blackout.” The last curtailment Vanderbilt experienced was due to a heat wave across the country in which no provider had any extra power to sell. “It’s the only time in the history of our LIP contract that they had no replacement power to sell us at any price,” Petty said. “It wasn’t a situation of ‘How much is it going to cost us?’ It was ‘Are we going to put so much load on the grid that we cause a blackout or brownout on campus?’”

Past curtailments also have shown that employees are willing to live with, and in some cases prefer, conservation measures. For example, “The hallway lights – people have gotten to where they like it when we keep them dim,” Petty said.

Such cooperation will be invaluable as Vanderbilt’s energy needs continue to increase. “In the last seven years, we’ve doubled our electrical consumption on campus, the vast majority of it through new construction and construction of research buildings that are heavy utility consumers,” Petty said. “However, our contract with TVA hasn’t changed, even though our electrical consumption has.” Vanderbilt could find itself in a sticky financial or operational situation if it doesn’t have full participation in reducing its energy use, Petty said.

With Vanderbilt’s utility costs – which include electricity, water, coal and natural gas – totaling around $36 million per year, conservation efforts can have a ripple effect. “In a curtailment situation, we increase our gas costs and our coal costs because we burn more of those to make more electricity – so we’re paying for it one way or the other. The idea here is, ‘Don’t burn them at all,’” Petty said.

“The best kilowatt is the one that’s not burned, because that’s the cleanest and that’s the cheapest. So turn unnecessary energy off – that’s the message.”

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