By Krista Aoki, Assistant Editor-in-Chief
Last school year, the University of Hawai’i at Hilo spent $4.5 million of its annual budget on its electricity bill (fiscal year 2012-2013). That’s an average of $375,000 per month.
“It’s a relatively small portion, but it’s significant,” Vice Chancellor of Administrative Affairs Marcia Sakai stated.
The electricity bill increased 5% compared to the fiscal year before (2011 – 2012).
Sakai concluded, “That increase was primarily was due to usage.”
What’s with this high electricity bill?
Last year, UH Hilo collaborated with Cornell University Engineering faculty, undergraduate and graduate students to address and understand potential problems. They looked at the university’s energy use, following through with a series of recommendations.
In their recommendations, they pointed out how there are “times where (our university) uses a very high amount (of electricity),” Sustainability Coordinator and Associate Professor of Ecological Genetics Dr. Cam Muir explained using layman’s terms. “If you make that one mistake (of using high amounts of electricity), you pay for that mistake for the rest of the year.”
“We have that high peak in autumn,” Muir added.
Because of the billing plan UH Hilo has with HELCO, that high peak doesn’t only cost our university for that month; we continue to pay for that high peak for the rest of the year.
Another problem noted by the Cornell University team was UH Hilo’s baseload – the minimum amount of electricity our university uses at one given time.
What they noted was “(UH Hilo’s) baseload is too high for an institution (its) size,” Muir pointed out.
“What’s in that baseload, and how can we understand that baseload?” Muir asked, suggesting that upon understanding that baseload we could address those problems and how to fix them.
One solution to addressing that high baseload may be the photo-voltaic panels installed on top of the Mookini Library. While they are installed, they are technically not activated yet.
“The process for getting them active does not appear to be simple,” Sakai suggested. Sakai also added that once the photo-voltaic panels are up and running, the university could save up to $345,000 on electricity annually.
Sometimes, an easy solution to our energy bill can be to turn down the lights. During the 2012 – 2013 school year, Muir and a group of students went around the UH Hilo campus and collected light readings. They used a light meter to measure the amount of light in specific spaces.
With the recommended light levels for a hallway being 10 fc, and light levels for surgery being 120 fc, these students went around campus. They found hallways such as STB’s with light levels of 110 fc. Additionally, they found classrooms inside the Agriculture Building to have light levels of 99.6 – 133.
“Overlit workspaces…reduces our ability to learn,” Muir noted.
Muir offered an undemanding solution of students asking professors to turn down the lights when uncomfortable. Muir also offered a simple solution of “leaving the blinds open” to bring that natural light into the classroom.
The university could save on electricity on simply a collective effort to turn the lights down to a comfortable setting.
“It’s like saving nickels,” Sakai offered with a smile. “After you save a lot of nickels, it adds up.”
Wasted Energy Around Campus
Some of electricity is energy the university pays for, but nobody benefits from it.
“Over the last couple years, I have been on campus late at night and early in the morning, and (I’ve) seen lights on in buildings that were locked,” Muir, pointed out. “The most recent time was at a little after 7 a.m. in Wentworth last week.”
But the problem isn’t limited to lights being left on overnight.
“When we lock that door open…(we’re) trying to air-condition Hilo,” Muir proposed.
And after our conversation, I did indeed notice doors around campus that must have been carelessly, though accidentally, propped open. It’s a problem.
UHHSA CAFNRM Senator Yuri Zhuraw also showed discouragement when it came to air-conditioning hot and humid Hilo.
A disappointed Zhuraw acknowledged, “(People’s) first solution (to cold classrooms) is to open the doors.” But, he countered that mindset. “It’s a waste of electricity.”
Zhuraw and Muir both addressed another problem being “vampire loads” – that is to say, energy that is being used even though machines are either off or on stand-by.
“Vampire loads are a big deal,” Zhuraw mentioned, listing photo-copiers, fax machines, and coffee percolators as major technologies that produce vampire loads.
However, there will be a pilot program designed to reduce energy waste around campus following a study Muir did with a unit called Smart Socket. “This is a little box that is plugged into a wall socket and into which something is plugged,” Muir spoke of this gadget with an optimistic beam on his face. “Electricity use data is wirelessly sent to a computer server and posted. (Then), the user can go to a page and see real time electricity use.”
“The units allow the user to program the power to be turned on and off at specified times, or manually,” he finished.
An enthusiastic Muir hopes that these Smart Sockets will “help us to modify behavior and allow greater control over reducing electrical waste – vampire loads.”
Encouraged, Sakai hopes UH Hilo will “become more efficient in the use of electricity.” Muir and Zhuraw both agreed that many of the problems related to electricity use were behavioral.
Previously, the campus participated in “Green Days,” days of university closure. UH Hilo “powered down” on these days, according to the Green Days program page on the UH Hilo website.
Sakai reported these days saving the university around $70,000 the past two years, and $40,000 – 50,000 before that. This year, a system-wide decision across University of Hawai’i campuses was made to not power down campuses. Instead of participating in “Green Days,” Sakai hopes that everyone around the university will “continue to practice energy-conserving behaviors” on a regular basis.
Sometimes, it’s as simple as closing the doors after you walk outside of an air-conditioned room. Other times, it’s as simple as turning off the lights when you leave an empty room.
“The more electricity we waste, the more we take out of classrooms,” Muir reminisced about his experiences walking into an empty restroom, only to find the lights on. “We could be spending this money on new sections.”