Energy council champions small changes to make big difference

Feb 26, 2021Courtney Morris

If you feud with family over the optimal thermostat setting or gripe over lights left on in empty rooms, try keeping utility bills in check for 1,300 homes combined. That's how much space San Jacinto College manages: 3 million square feet.

Providing hot and cold air, lighting, and power to the College's five campuses and other facilities is a big job. And the energy management department welcomes help with keeping the costs down.

In 2019, San Jac created the Energy Council with 10 campus representatives to serve as eyes and ears for energy conservation. Not only do members learn about the College's current initiatives, but they can suggest ideas and champion conservation among coworkers and students.

The hidden expense

Building automation system
Too hot or too cold? The building automation system shows energy use at the Maritime Campus.

Utilities rank second in San Jac's budget — just after personnel.

Since 2016, Texas has required colleges and universities to reduce their utility use by 5% each year. The Energy Council will help San Jac continue to meet this mandate.

"We really need as part of our energy plan buy-in from the council members," said David Laws, facilities systems and energy manager. "We did not want to tell people what we're doing without input, help, and support."

More than 70% of San Jac's ability to reduce energy use comes from the College community's daily choices. The Energy Council can encourage this behavior modification. Who better than a coworker to ask, "How about shutting down your computer at night?" or "Do you turn off lights when you leave the room?"

San Jac usually keeps occupied buildings between 68 and 74 degrees, temperatures that are comfortable for most. But "reasonable" decisions may include, for example, dropping the temperature for technical program students wearing PPE for simulations.

"We have to weigh that," Laws said. "That's part of our job."

In other cases, it goes back to behavior modification conversations: Do you turn your thermostat up or down that much at home? Instead of bringing a space heater, can you wear a jacket?

Champions of the off switch

On Jan. 26, the Energy Council met via Zoom to discuss recent energy savings and ideas to gain momentum.

Scott Gernander and Anna Guevara both serve on the council. Gernander, dean of administration, interacts with all Central Campus departments since he manages campus operations. Energy conservation is a no-brainer for him.

"Taking the time and effort to conserve allows us to allocate more to other areas that will directly impact the success of our students," he said.

Gernander goes beyond advocating the off switch to reporting campus energy issues.

"I do my best to report any location on campus that may be too cool, too warm, or have any other energy or lighting concerns," he said.

Guevara, human resources position management coordinator, not only cares about the environment but also wants to help the College save money. As the self-dubbed "crazy person" leaping for the light switch, she hopes people will see a bigger impact than reducing a utility bill — like contributing to student resources or scholarships.

"Someone may not care to turn off a light if they think it's just saving the College money on their electric bill," she said, "but they might be more apt to help if they knew those savings were going to help our students pay for tuition or books."

New meets old

Energy conservation is never-ending work.

While San Jac pursues modern energy-efficient technology in new buildings, older facilities require retrocommissioning — diagnosing performance and revamping or replacing outdated equipment and systems. The cycle continues as buildings age and technology changes.

Some immediate changes have included converting to LED lights and determining where solar panels make sense. Renovated and new buildings get double-pane windows since single-pane ones leak air.

Energy conservation also means delivering what each building needs in utilities — not too much or too little. Laws and other energy management staff monitor a building automation system, software that manages 120,000 heating, ventilation, and air conditioning control points.

"It takes two full-time technicians to keep the system at peak operability," Laws said. "We can see everything from our office."

The system can turn off AC when it's not needed or turn it on temporarily to dehumidify areas. It can also ensure water is not being over-pumped to unoccupied buildings.

Keeping tomorrow in mind

In early 2020, San Jac locked in a low electricity rate for five years, going from $0.049 to $0.037/kwh. Because of the lower rate and reduced campus activity during altered operations, the College dropped its annual energy bill by $418,000 last year.

Since the electricity rate will likely increase — perhaps significantly — in 2025, the energy management department and council are teaming to reduce energy waste.

"We want to be in a position where we're using the least amount of energy in case those predictions are correct," Laws said. "If we can get this right, the College may be able to avoid difficult choices in the years to come."

San Jac leadership has prioritized energy conservation, realizing short- and long-term return on investment. Meanwhile, CenterPoint Energy offers the College incentives to pursue energy-efficient technology, and the state provides low-interest loans for energy conservation measures.

"The College acknowledges [rising energy costs]," Laws said. "A lot of colleges are looking at today, not long-term."

Start small

While energy conservation can get technical, the Energy Council helps break it down: It's about small changes that make a big difference.

Beyond lowering bills, saving energy means more money for student resources. Reducing the College's carbon footprint also means a better environment.

With 3 million square feet of space, San Jac reduced its carbon emissions in 2020 by the same amount a standard car would have produced traveling 11.8 million miles.

In Guevara's mind, conserving energy should be everyone's goal.

"We should all be doing our part to conserve energy at work and at home," Guevara said. "Most people probably don't ever think about how much the College spends in energy costs. I certainly didn't before joining this council. I think if people understand their impact, they will try to help ease that burden on the College — and on the environment."