Emory Report

August 23, 1999

 Volume 52, No. 1

Keith Curtis: Emory's man behind the "energy crisis"

When Mother Nature turned up the heat to broil a few weeks back, some people at Emory felt it more than others. One of the University's warmer individuals was Keith Curtis, energy management engineer for Facilities Management, who had to come up with ways to cut down on the use of energy that suddenly was costing more than 40 times its normal rate.

Aside from the heat wave that caused energy consumption levels to leap to unprecedented heights, at issue was the rate system by which Emory purchases its electricity from Georgia Power, Curtis explained. Emory is charged with "real-time pricing," a program Georgia Power instituted several years ago to help manage times of severe demand.

Under real-time pricing, during normal consumption periods the University, and other large organizations that participate, pay a substantially reduced rate of about two-and-a-half cents per kilowatt hour. But in times of great demand--extremely hot or cold days--the real-time customers are charged much higher rates as an incentive to cut their consumption and make more power available to residences and other businesses.

If the University had chosen to take no special action during the crisis day of Monday, Aug. 2, normal power usage would have cost an extra $100,000. But because of the reduction plan Curtis came up with involving temperature controls and turning off lights where and when they were not needed, Emory saved about $43,000.

"The real problem was that weekend (July 30-Aug. 2) the whole nation was hot, and nobody had extra power [for Georgia Power to purchase]," Curtis said. "The prices went through the roof for a good number of hours, prices we've never seen before. By lowering our load, we got down to about half our incremental demand."

Managing energy consumption is what Curtis does, though he usually works under looser deadlines. Now in his ninth year at Emory, he focuses on economizing electricity needs for buildings across the University. Most of the buildings are on the main campus, and in three major projects he's saved Emory nearly $300,000 a year in power bills.

"Early on [in my time here], there was a lot of looking at buildings and seeing if they were operating efficiently and, if not, coming up with ways to improve them," said Curtis, who holds a bachelor's in mechanical engineering with a certificate in energy engineering, from Georgia Tech. He also has a BS in chemistry and is one of only a handful of registered professional engineers in FMD.

Curtis installed a direct digital control system for climate control in the P.E. Center, replacing the old pneumatic system. The new system cost $150,000, half of which came from a Department of Energy grant, and it saves $150,000 a year-twice the invested amount.

White Hall, built in 1971, was using one central air handler to cool the whole building. To get enough cool air up to an office with lots of equipment on the top floor, the system was chilling the air so much that it had to be reheated for every other room in the building. Curtis implemented a variety of improvements to make White Hall more energy efficient, but essentially he decentralized its climate control system, cutting electricity use by half and steam use by 90 percent. The total cost was $400,000, nearly a third of which came from another grant, and savings totaled $80,000 a year.

"I love it--I love fixing stuff," Curtis said. He works with campus planning in reviewing designs for proposed buildings, not all of which even end up getting built (such as the original Performing Arts Center design). The challenges are many, considering how varied are the types of buildings at Emory; the energy needs of a lab research building are very different from an office building, just as the needs of a classroom building are different from the library or the Carlos Museum.

"The museum has a lot tighter requirements as far as humidity controls," Curtis said. "It's a whole different design from an office-type building or a research building, which requires 100 percent outside air. Each type of building requires a different way of managing airflows, heating and cooling loads, lighting requirements and temperature controls."

Of course, some of Curtis' projects offer challenges he might never have imagined. For example, in 1995 the gross anatomy lab and the morgue in the Anatomy and Physiology Building were having ventilation problems; it seems the air flow was not sufficient for rooms full of research cadavers, and the smell of formaldehyde was becoming a bit too prevalent. Curtis came up with a design that used vents attached to big duct-columns and placed right at the cadavers' feet.

"That," he said, "was kind of spooky."

In order to cut energy consumption all the time instead of just in moments of crisis, Curtis is examining several alternatives. Many buildings have individual thermostats in separate rooms; even though FMD has set the parameters within which the thermostats can be changed, some buildings have a separate temperature for every room. Turning off computers and lights when they're not needed, such as the Dobbs Center lobby lights in the daytime, and closing fume hoods when not in use are other good ideas.

At least the "Emory Energy Crisis of 1999" had one good result: it offered a crash course in emergency power rationing. Curtis is confident that "the next time it happens, it'll go a lot smoother."

--Michael Terrazas

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