If you build it, they will come. But who will pay the electricity bill?
That's the conundrum UC Davis faced with a new building for its School of Veterinary Medicine. The $58.5 million project is scheduled to be completed at the end of 2012, but with its facilities budget stretched to its limit, the campus needed creative solutions to cover the research lab building's $1.4 million a year operating costs.
"How do you absorb $1.4 million in energy costs, custodial costs and groundskeeping costs — all the costs that keep a building running?" said Sid England, UC Davis's assistant vice chancellor for environmental stewardship and sustainability. "It's like somebody gave you money to buy a toy, but you don't have the batteries for it."
So the campus turned to sustainable practices to cut energy use and other costs to fund the new building's operation. Some of the options included tweaking the design and operations plan of the new building to maximize efficiency while expanding conservation efforts and consolidating unused space in other veterinary school buildings.
While plans haven't been finalized, England said there's enough potential savings from utilizing high-efficiency lighting, heating, cooling and by retiring underused low-temperature lab freezers and other measures to get the new building up and running.
"The budget issue has brought us to the point," England said. "We have to look for ways to save energy, and saving on energy of course also reduces our carbon footprint, which is another one of our goals."
In an era of reduced budgets and cost cutting, UC's sustainability efforts are allowing it to save money while furthering its goals to make its campuses greener.
The topic is what England, UC Berkeley Sustainability Director Lisa McNeilly and UC systemwide Sustainability Manager Matt St. Clair have been invited to present in a panel called "Crisis Into Opportunity: Can Sustainability Programs and Budget Cuts be Mutually Supportive?" at the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education's national conference this week in Pittsburgh.
UC Riverside Chancellor Timothy White is one of the keynote speakers at the conference. He is chair of the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment and the UC Riverside Chancellor's Committee on Sustainability. White's speech focuses on the important role universities play in sustainability, serving as a resource and role models for the communities they serve, even during a budget crunch.
"Despite significant budget challenges in the state of California — and perhaps because of them — I continue to fund UCR's sustainability program, not only because I believe it is the right thing to do, but because in the long run I believe it will not only conserve precious natural resources but also save our institution money," White said in his prepared remarks.
The University of California is one of the pioneers of sustainability within higher education, and the cost savings associated with being green takes on greater importance as public universities face the budget ax.
"The more we spend on energy, water and waste disposal, that's less money we have to spend on academics and research," St. Clair said. "UC was focused on sustainability before this budget crisis. Now more than ever, sustainability is the right thing to do, for our environment and our bottom line."
It's no coincidence that reducing energy use and dependence on fossil fuels play a large role in UC's systemwide sustainability policies and its Working Smarter program to improve administrative efficiency. Three sustainability initiatives are among the Working Smarter projects that are projected to save $500 million per year when fully implemented:
- UC's ambitious goal to become carbon neutral — zero-net emissions of greenhouse gases — cannot happen without aggressive energy efficiency and conservation efforts.
- In a pilot program, all UC campuses are moving some data servers — the energy intensive machines that run computer networks — to the San Diego Supercomputing Center to test the viability of a systemwide data center, which has great potential for energy and cost savings.
- UC is part of the Higher Education Energy Efficiency Partnership with the California State University system and the state's four investor-owned utilities, which provide financing for efficiency projects. Coupled with a systemwide Strategic Energy Plan, UC saved $25 million on energy costs in fiscal 2010-11; when fully implemented, it's estimated that annual cost savings will be $40 million a year.
UC adopted its first sustainability policy in 2003 and it has evolved to include mandates for cutting carbon emissions, energy efficiency, sustainable food service, use of renewable resources, recycling, waste reduction, water conservation and environmentally friendly construction methods.
While environmental stewardship is the sustainability policy's main intent, the side benefit is that most of these initiatives save money as well. Budget cuts are forcing fundamental changes in the way UC operates, and the savings from energy conservation and sustainability practices can be part of the solution to a leaner more efficient university.
"Energy is too often managed as if it is free, a scenario that encourages waste," said McNeilly, who also is presenting at the AASHE conference on how UC Berkeley is adopting an energy management plan to promote conservation as part of the campus's operational efficiency program.
At UC campuses, most departments, groups or individuals aren't billed for electricity, so cost savings may not be an incentive to conserve. In the program being implemented at Berkeley, a usage baseline will be set for electricity users. If they use less than the baseline, they can share in the savings by receiving rebates and credits that can be used toward work orders from the campus facilities department.
McNeilly said the inclusion of energy conservation among the campus initiatives to address budget constraints was "an opportunity for us to make a series of changes that certainly would have been more difficult to do in the past."
To address shrinking budgets for groundskeeping, UC Davis is embarking on a plan to transform campus landscaping to use less water and fewer resources for upkeep. One of the first projects is a strip lawn along a bicycle and pedestrian path that currently costs $6,500 a year to maintain. A change to less-water-intensive plants and landscaping will cut the annual cost to $2,300 a year, according to England.
"The budget crunch is forcing us to look at what we should be doing to manage our landscape in a different way," England said.
Like Berkeley, UC Davis also has an objective to cut energy costs that comes from the chancellor's office.
"People are generally aware of the importance of sustainability and part of our goal is to create a culture of sustainability on campus. It's an ongoing educational process," England said. "But if you have budget a letter from the chancellor that says cut energy use, that tells people it's serious."