The Columns

W&L's Energy Education Program Saves Money, Reduces Carbon Footprint

— by on June 5th, 2012

The sight of two individuals prowling around Washington and Lee University in the middle of the night might ordinarily be a cause for alarm. But when W&L’s two energy education specialists, Jane Stewart and Morris Trimmer, are the ones doing the prowling, the only people who need to worry are those who have left on a computer, an air conditioner or some other energy-wasting device.

Stewart and Trimmer are helping W&L reduce its utility consumption and carbon footprint through the Energy Education Program (EEP), which began in June 2011. An important part of the program involves changing the habits of members of the University community and how they use energy resources.

“We go through buildings when nobody is there, and when we find things that are left on — such as computers, lights and air-conditioning — we leave notes on people’s desks as a gentle reminder to turn things off when they leave the office,” said Stewart. “It’s really interesting to see how many little things people just don’t think about until you point it out.”

Trimmer added that people need ongoing reminders. “If I can get somebody to agree to start doing something differently, but don’t come back, then they fall back into to their old habits. It’s very easy to do, and understandable,” he said.

Stewart’s favorite story involves a visit to a fraternity last December. “There was a bunch of guys in this room with their window air conditioner on high, because they didn’t realize that they could turn down the radiator, which was blasting heat and making the room too hot. They were very apologetic about it because they knew who we were, but they thought it was their only option,” she said. “The amount of waste due to misunderstanding and misinformation is incredible. What’s compelling to me is that whether your interest is saving money or saving the environment, people can make a very big difference by just paying a little bit of attention.”

One primary example involves the failure to shut down computers at the end of the work day. “We’ve got thousands of computers on campus,” said Trimmer. “If all of them are shut down completely, we will save a significant amount of energy. So each little bit does make a difference, and collectively we can make a big difference.”

W&L’s program is a partnership with Energy Education Inc., a Texas firm that has helped educational organizations nationwide reduce energy consumption. It is predicted that, over time, the combined efforts will reduce the University’s carbon footprint by 30 percent and save $2 million per year in energy costs. W&L aims to be carbon neutral by 2050.

Stewart and Trimmer spend a lot of time figuring out schedules for how each building on campus uses energy. For example, heating or air conditioning typically would run 24 hours a day. But some buildings are not used overnight. “Turning off the heating or cooling in a building when nobody’s there seems like a fairly obvious thing to do,” said Stewart.

Some of the University’s facilities, such as Leyburn Library and Elrod Commons, can get complicated. “People are used to being able to show up whenever they want and finding the building fully air conditioned or fully heated. We also have to take into account any events that might be going on in the buildings. In some places such as the Science Center, it’s even more nuanced because you can’t have temperature fluctuations because of the work they are doing,” she said.

The team also checks mechanical rooms and the equipment used for heating or cooling buildings to make sure they are working correctly. “We work closely with Facilities Management in managing the systems,” said Trimmer.

The team records every utility meter on campus in their database, along with all the billing information since June 2009. “Every month we enter information from all the utility bills, so we can see if energy consumption is going down,” said Trimmer. “Our software takes into account differences such as the weather and the fluctuation of utility rates. For the last couple of months, we’ve seen a consistent 20 percent reduction across the board, and that’s after you subtract the varying factors.”

Providing educational information and promoting conversations about energy conservation across campus are also important parts of the EEP. To that end, Stewart and Trimmer have regular conversations with people around campus. They also created a website and blog:  http://energyeducation.blogs.wlu.edu/.

During the winter break, they organized a competition to see which area of the residence halls did the best job of following a checklist of energy-saving activities. “Overall they did a very good job,” said Stewart. “One floor in particular did a great job, so we had a little pizza party to celebrate with them.

“I think that people sometimes feel overwhelmed by the numbers on increasing global energy demands and climate change. This program has really opened my eyes to how much you can do individually,” she added. “It’s so easy and intuitive once you get into the habit that you don’t even know you’re doing it. But these small things really do make a legitimate difference.”

Here are some tips from Trimmer and Stewart on saving energy and money in the home. “It all comes down to paying attention and running things only when you’re using them,” said Stewart. “And it adds up to great savings on utility bills.”

Find out more about how W&L’s Energy Education Program is helping the University save: