Simple Steps Help University Reduce What it Pays for Electricity

the sun rises behind Fox Hall and East Campus Image by Ed Brennen
By reducing energy consumption on campus during summer heat waves, faculty, staff and students help the university pay a lower transmission cost for its electricity the next year.

By Ed Brennen

Facilities Management sends out the emails a few times each summer. With the subject line “Power Curtailment Notification,” the emails ask faculty, staff and students on campus to turn off unneeded computers, appliances and lights for a few hours to lower the university’s energy usage.

“Regional energy consumption is reaching undesirable or unsustainable peak loads,” warns the notification, which usually comes during heat waves when air conditioners are cranked up in homes and offices across New England.  

When the message went out on July 30 last year, the campus community responded as usual. Despite the temperature hitting 96 degrees in Lowell that Tuesday afternoon, faculty and staff dialed back air conditioners and closed blinds.

From 3 to 6 p.m. that day, the university managed to reduce its electrical consumption by 2.2 megawatts — enough to power almost 37,000 60-watt light bulbs.

Besides the fact that conserving energy is a good thing, why is that so important?

Because that three-hour window turned out to be the peak load hours of the summer that the university’s grid operator, ISO New England, used to determine its commercial and industrial customers’ transmission cost, or “capacity tag,” for the following year.
“We’re doing everything we can to keep costs low, and we really have a keen eye on our utilities.” -Energy Manager Dan Abrahamson

Thanks to the university’s “demand response” that day, it was able to reduce its capacity tag by 45 percent this year — which is projected to translate into $180,000 in energy cost avoidance (assuming no significant rate changes from ISO New England, which runs the region’s power grid). 
“It’s a big, big win for us,” says Dan Abrahamson, energy manager for Operations and Services. “We’re doing everything we can to keep costs low, and we really have a keen eye on our utilities.”

Even though most faculty and staff are still working from home because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Facilities Management has already sent out a power curtailment notification this summer: on July 9, when the temperature in Lowell hit 92 degrees. 

“It’s still very beneficial for us to reduce energy demand as low as we can, even with fewer people on campus,” says Abrahamson, who constantly monitors when a peak demand day could occur with help from Competitive Energy Services, the university’s third-party energy management provider.

The university receives money-saving incentives by participating in three demand response programs: the ISO-New England Active Demand Capacity Resource, National Grid’s Connected Solutions Targeted Dispatch program, and CPower’s Peak Demand Management System, which determines the capacity tag each year.

“It’s good, green policy,” says T.J. McCarthy, executive director of Operations and Services. “It’s beneficial to the planet, which is important to our students. And from a financial perspective, it keeps the cost of running the university down.”

To help manage its demand response efforts, the university uses a building management system called Automated Logic. With the push of a button, the operations team can increase the central air conditioner set points to 78 degrees in buildings tied into the system. Reducing the use of chillers and their associated airflow system fans results in the university’s biggest energy savings, Abrahamson says.

Over the past several years, Randy Branson, associate director of mechanical, electrical and plumbing operations, has been working to connect more buildings across campus to the Automated Logic system. The university is also expanding its demand response program overall, with the state installing new meters in buildings this summer.

While the pandemic has been difficult for the entire university community, the shutdown has resulted in decreased energy consumption across campus. Buildings have maintained a minimum baseload of power to run computer servers, card access readers and emergency and safety components. Air conditioning has also been limited — although not to the point of impacting the environmental health of buildings.

“The big savings has been in lab buildings,” says Abrahamson, whose team is still waiting on final numbers to calculate how much has been saved since March. He expects it to be “significant.” 

As the campus emerges from its shutdown and prepares to welcome students back for the fall, Facilities Management is starting to bring slumbering systems back online to make sure they are running effectively.

And as faculty and staff begin returning to their offices, Abrahamson says it’s important for them to remain vigilant when they receive those power curtailment notification emails.

“If someone is on campus,” he says, “their participation is so crucial and beneficial for the university.”