Weber State University surging ahead as energy-efficient 'powerhouse'

Friday , October 13, 2017 - 5:15 AM

LEIA LARSEN, Standard-Examiner Staff

Even as Weber State University’s enrollment and campus grow, something about the school keeps shrinking — its carbon footprint. 

As part Utah Climate Week, WSU officials guided visitors around the Ogden campus, highlighting some of the big and small changes they’ve made to improve energy consumption. They’ve swapped out lightbulbs, installed solar panels and they’re incorporating an energy-efficient heating and cooling system as they phase out boilers and chillers. All said, WSU has cut its carbon emissions by 30 percent since 2009 and saved the campus around $10.5 million to date, according to Facilities Management.

Those efforts stem from a goal set in 2007 for the university be carbon-neutral by 2050, although WSU energy manager Justin Owen said they’ll likely hit that target by 2040.

“The elevator speech is that we’ve reduced costs by 44 percent and emissions by 31 percent since our 2009 baseline,” Owen said. “During that time, we’ve added about 500,000 square feet and our student body has gone from about 17,000 to 26,000.”

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Owen shared details of those achievements Wednesday with visitors from University of Utah and other climate-concerned Utah citizens. 

“On the sustainability side ... we all have our strengths at each university,” said Jen Bodine with WSU’s Sustainability Practices and Research Center. “Energy’s definitely our powerhouse.”

The university has a four-point plan to reduce energy consumption and reach its carbon neutrality goal. First, they want to improve efficiency through things like swapping out old lights with LED bulbs and improving insulation. Second, they’re focusing on electrifying end uses of energy on campus instead of relying on fossil fuels. As a third step, the campus is working to generate that electricity from clean, renewable sources.

Finally, the campus plans to take all the money it saves from its energy-efficient programs and reinvest it back into into an energy project fund.

One project at Weber State campuses that has sparked a lot of interest is solar panel installations. At the Davis campus, a 6,000-panel, 1.8 megawatt array went live in March.

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“That array provides all the electrical needs for that campus,” Owen said. 

To date, that generation has saved the university around $12,000 a month on its energy bill, although that figure will likely dip in the winter. Still, while panels look good, they don’t necessarily generate the greenest bang for the buck.

There are complications with net metering. The Ogden campus is a lot larger than Davis, and if their panels over-produce power they’d net-meter back into Rocky Mountain Power’s high voltage distribution lines, Owen said.

“Which is kind of an engineering nightmare and there’s a lot of risk,” he said. “The plan is to build enough solar to not exceed point where we’d send power back.”

Solar panels also have a longer payoff period compared to initiatives like swapping out light bulbs. Lighting projects pay for themselves in around six years, Owen said. 

Contrast that with the solar array recently installed on the Ogden campus’s Facilities Management Building, which has a payback period of 11 years.

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“Originally, people were thinking, ‘Let’s put up solar, it’s awesome, it looks great, it will demonstrate we’re doing something,’” said Bonnie Christiansen with WSU’s Sustainability Practices and Research Center. “But I think someone was really smart about saying, ‘No, what we’re going to do is go after what has the best (return on investment) first.’”

WSU managers swapped out the Dee Event Center lights with LEDs in 2013 — the old lights used to take 20 minutes to heat up. Their outdoor parking lights used to guzzle 400 watts, but they’ve been exchanged for 40-watt LEDs. They switch off when they sense sunlight.

Other, less obvious projects had a rapid return, Owen said. Switching out the Davis campus air chillers for an indirect evaporative cooler paid for itself in nine days by his estimate. 

But there are a few hurdles ahead in the university’s path toward carbon neutrality.

“In our opinion, the biggest challenge to becoming carbon-neutral is getting away from fossil fuels,” Owen said.

That means phasing out the Ogden campus’s old central steam plant, which heats most of the buildings and runs on natural gas. It’s one of the university’s largest source of emissions.

Some buildings at Weber State are already “carbon-neutral capable,” which means they’ve been renovated and don’t require any direct use of fossil fuels. The Ogden campus library, for example, doesn’t need to be connected to the natural gas-burning boiler plant for heat. Instead, the mechanical system runs on an electrified heat pump system.

In new buildings and renovated ones like the library, they’re swapping out the old boiler and chiller systems with technology called “variable refrigerant flow.” VRF systems take up less space in buildings, eliminate the need for a central steam plant and, in one study, cut energy use by a third or more.

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The WSU systems also pre-heat or pre-cool air by piping it through underground fields.

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To date, those VRF systems are in around a 25 percent of the Ogden campus buildings.

“We’re kind of in a hybrid mode where we’re not fully able to provide our heating needs with the ground source, but we still saw a 75 percent reduction in natural gas cost for the buildings that are on VRF,” Owen said. 

By moving away from fossil fuels, the university can turn to renewable power sources, whether generated on-site by panels or purchased through Rocky Mountain Power’s solar and wind farms.

The school’s biggest uphill carbon battle comes from emissions not directly coming from the university itself, but from all the faculty, staff and students who drive to campus every day with fossil fuel-burning vehicles.

“We have about 1,000 beds on campus, usually 800 to 900 are full,” Owen said. “That gives you an idea of how many people are coming to campus.”

Another project that lies ahead is educating and energizing WSU’s own students about the university’s green projects and encouraging them to take part.

“When I go speak to classes, they’ve been learning a lot about climate change and the issues we’re facing,” Bodine said. “The fun thing about my job is saying yes, we have a lot of problems, the climate crisis is real, it’s happening and we need to do something about it ... but the technology is there, the solutions are there, and oh, by the way, the university is saving a grundle of money implementing those solutions.”

Contact Reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or llarsen@standard.net. Follow her on Facebook.com/leiainthefield or on Twitter @LeiaLarsen

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