Newswise — Officials at Southeastern Louisiana University are eyeing the possibility of being off the commercial electrical grid within a decade.
With energy costs rising in a tight higher education budget situation, conservation and alternative energy sources implemented by the university may make that vision a reality.
“It’s an aggressive goal, admittedly,” said Southeastern Physical Plant Director Byron Patterson, “but we believe we have to think aggressively or it won’t happen at all. Any strides taken toward this overarching goal are steps in the right direction.”
The university is using a combination of tactics: solar power to generate electricity and heated water, in-house biodiesel generation to power off-road vehicles and landscaping equipment, replacement of aging equipment with more energy efficient models, and conservation through a tightly controlled energy management system.
Among the latest and most visible additions is the placement of solar panels on top of the recently renovated Kinesiology and Health Sciences Building to heat water used in the indoor pool and locker rooms used by the tennis and track teams. Also, a set of photovoltaic solar panels – able to withstand winds of up to 135 miles per hour and that track the sun for maximum efficiency -- generate electricity that helps power the university’s Physical Plant offices.
The seven rows of linked panels on the kinesiology building cost approximately $150,000 and were purchased with funds approved by the university’s Student Technology Fee Committee. The committee uses dedicated student fees to fund large and small projects that improve technology available to students and advance student learning opportunities. The new energy resources, while helping reduce costs for the university, also are accessed by students in Southeastern’s environmental awareness courses and in the Energy Engineering Technology program, providing hands-on experience and research opportunities.
Mike Asoodeh, professor of industrial technology and chief information officer, said the annual energy savings will allow the university to recover the initial investment in approximately five years by significantly reducing the need for natural gas.
The panels powering the Physical Plant and those placed on top of the university’s administration building to provide hot water, as well as the biodiesel operation that uses waste cooking oil from food concessions on campus and area restaurants, were also funded through the committee’s allocations.
“The systems have a strong academic component,” Asoodeh said. “They provide students an excellent opportunity to learn about the systems first-hand and do both research and practice.”
Patterson has also established a training area in the Physical Plant, where heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) staff are trained, not just on the mechanics of their work, but on the theory as well.
“With a better understanding of the systems we’re using, our staff can more easily handle most repairs that are needed,” Patterson said. “We don’t want to be dependent upon outside companies for most of our maintenance and repair.”
An additional significant step toward conservation on campus took place when the university installed a comprehensive energy management control system that currently covers about 85 percent of university buildings. Dawson Kinchen, supervisor of controls, underwent specialized training for several weeks, learning the systems installed in a number of buildings on campus.
“This means we can do a lot of work in-house and not have to depend upon expensive system control professionals,” said Patterson. “That’s a major savings right there.”
To create a more integrated system, the university converted old and outdated pneumatic controls to direct digital controls in many of its buildings. Now, via a control panel with several monitors, Kinchen can simultaneously view the HVAC performance in most campus buildings.
“With direct digital controls, we can basically ‘tune up’ a building to get maximum efficiency,” Kinchen said. “Under the old pneumatic system, you could have up to a five percent swing in temperature. We cleaned up the controls for digital commands, and this allows us to control the temperature in a building to within one-half of a degree.”
That operation has a direct impact: in 2009-10, more than $1.2 million was saved in electrical costs, and Patterson said that’s the basic benchmark the plant seeks to exceed each year.
To Kinchen’s knowledge, this is the only system of its type in the state. Consequently, the university has been visited by representatives from several other universities and colleges, school systems and parish governments who are considering implementing similar technology.
To increase energy efficiency even more, Southeastern officials are considering other projects involving better control of lighting during off-hours and the placement of solar panels for electrical power and hot water generation on top of the Biology Building and the university’s large parking garage. Also in the plans are expanded recycling activities and investigation of biomass technologies for energy production.
“There is no single approach to efficient energy generation and management,” said Asoodeh. “However, collectively the various technologies available that are constantly improving, as well as a strong conservation program, can yield tremendous savings.”