August 25, 2003

Energy project a good start

Peggy Barlett is professor of anthropology.

Four years ago, a professor at Tufts University inspired me with an account of how his university had formally committed to massive energy reduction, a response to new evidence of global climate change. A year later, a diverse group at an Emory environmental workshop expressed a similar goal, but after a number of meetings the group was unable to find a clear direction for action.

Then last summer, as I walked through Tarbutton Hall at midday, I passed two large classrooms—both empty but with lights blazing. Outside, it was a high alert day for air pollution in Atlanta. I thought, “Surely we can do better!” At the initiative of Dean Bobby Paul and an advisory committee, the Emory College Energy Conservation Project was born.

We began with a focus just on college faculty and staff, to explore what approaches work to increase awareness and change behavior. Erin Hotchkiss, an environmental studies major, worked part time answering questions from departments and collecting data from Facilities Management (FM).

We built on a decade of work by FM to raise energy efficiency and by the Office of Alternative Transportation to reduce vehicle use. The Information Technology Division (ITD) donated staff time and guidance as part of its own commitment to environmental responsibility. The philosophy of the Energy Conservation Project was to foster new expertise among many individuals, enhance awareness of the impacts of our daily operations and habits, save money, and support a culture of environmental stewardship.

Polluted air is a major environmental concern in Atlanta, and roughly half comes from power plants (the other half comes from vehicle exhaust). Atlanta’s air quality is among the worst in the nation, in part because local power plants use older, coal-based technology.

In addition to producing particulates that are harmful to health, by-products of electricity generation help create the lung-scarring ground-level ozone that contributes to asthma and respiratory disease.

Power plants also are one of the major producers of greenhouse gases, which contribute to global climate change. Many other universities now have joined Tufts in reducing energy use; last year, the 36 colleges and universities of the New Jersey State system committed themselves to meet the Kyoto Accords guidelines, a 7 percent reduction of greenhouse gases from 1990 levels by the year 2007.

What’s more, saving electricity is financially smart. Harvard’s new Arts and Sciences Energy Reduc-tion Project estimates an annual savings of $300,000, primarily from changes in computer use. Tulane expects to save some $200,000 per year from similar changes. The winning residence hall in a recent Tufts energy-conservation competition reduced electricity use by half.

Emory is gaining a reputation as a leader in environmental sustainability, but we also are huge users of electricity. Our university and health care activities consume more than 212,000,000 kilowatt hours a year, according to FM. Producing that much electricity generates 151,667 tons of carbon dioxide (the largest constituent of greenhouse gases), according to a study by environmental studies student Tera Compton. (The commuting habits of faculty, staff and students are estimated to generate another 30,500 tons of carbon dioxide per year).

Five recommendations

We in the Energy Conservation Project based our focus of behavior change on research by other universities, research centers, the Department of Energy and the federal Environmental Protection Agency. We avoided cookie-cutter rules, realizing that individual units and people can best decide what steps are appropriate and feasible.

1. Turn off computers at night and on weekends. Many people have been told not to turn off their computers, but studies conducted at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have found that hard disks are not affected by frequent shutdowns. In fact, hardware may actually last longer due to reduced heat stress and mechanical wear.

2. Reduce computer monitor energy use. Many computers now feature a “power management” option that puts the monitor into sleep mode after 10–30 minutes. Or, monitors simply can be turned off when not in use. Disabling screen savers is an important way to reduce power use and allow the computer to go to sleep (the computer can still be accessed from other locations).

3. Turn off lights. Much energy is wasted in lighting empty classrooms, offices, lounges and labs. Some rooms are adequately lit by daylight alone, as in the new Math & Science Center. Though fluorescent lights generally use less energy, we’ve learned how to be smarter in their use. A typical office in my building has a dozen 4-foot-long fluorescent bulbs that use approximately 34 watts an hour apiece. So, flipping the wall switch uses 400 watts, but a single desk lamp with a 100-watt bulb cuts that by three quarters.

4. Consider other electricity uses. Copiers on sleep mode? Coffee makers turned off at night? Do all new computers and appliances carry the Energy Star rating? Can lab equipment be turned off safely for periods of time? Can elevator use be reduced? My pet peeve is the use of automatic door openers by the able-bodied.

5. Work with heating and air conditioning experts to reduce waste. Air conditioning has been moderated in several buildings this summer, and FM is looking at ways of standardizing and improving comfort and efficiency. Closing window blinds in summer is a good way to reduce solar heat gain.

First-year results
This year, we have made a good start. We collected data for 10 buildings (Atwood, Bowden, Callaway, Emerson, Geosciences, Psychology, Rich, Studio Arts, Tarbutton and White) from September 2002 to June 2003. During that time, energy use went down an average of 4.5 percent. In reality, the decrease was probably greater. If measurements exclude two buildings whose data shifted sharply with the installation of new meters, energy use declined 8 percent.

Further, interest in the energy project also brought about new momentum for recycling, reduced departmental purchases of disposable products, and decreases in paper use. Many of Emory’s free-standing kiosk computers now rest in sleep mode, thanks to efforts by ITD. Some departmental computer labs do the same. Senior Vice President John Ford and his staff in Campus Life worked last year with the student Environmental Action Coalition (Ecoseac) to bring the energy project into student dorms, and Oxford College has launched its own energy conservation initiative.

The urgency of energy conservation will only grow, both for the city and for Emory. Atlanta now is categorized as “severe” in its nonattainment of the Clean Air Act standards, which means more stringent guidelines for our emissions and possible fines for Georgia Power and the University in 2005.

John Wegner, Emory’s new campus environmental officer, is assembling a task force on energy policy, together with the University Senate Committee on the Environment. The task force will seek opportunities across the University for savings and conservation in our daily operations, building design standards and renewable energy resources. It will also explore how Emory can best participate in “green power” alternatives.

One of the deep satisfactions for me of working on environmental issues at Emory is to see the “Aha!” moment light up people’s faces, when new information joins with their personal values to clarify a line of action they can take, thereby adding new meaning to daily routines. Many faculty and staff proudly report changes they have made in their offices and homes to save energy.

We have a long way to go, but the combined effort of the thousands in the Emory community can make a significant impact on curbing air pollution and reducing our contributions to global climate change.

Energy conservation is a good step forward, as we learn how to achieve the University’s many goals with a lighter footprint on the earth.