Energy Efficiency | January 31, 2020

3 Ways to Tackle Energy Efficiency on the College Campus

Everybody’s doing it: from MIT’s energy initiative to Colgate University’s carbon neutrality, colleges and universities all over the US are prioritizing energy efficiency and getting to net zero. Whether for sustainability or financial reasons, retrofitting university buildings and systems delivers important benefits to campuses of all sizes.

This 2017 publication, Campus Utility Systems Master Planning, argues for the importance of “actionable strategies” for colleges to make smart energy decisions. A piece from the US Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Initiative summarizes a review of campus energy plans and finds “The most rigorous plans holistically evaluate benefits and level of effort for low-, mid-, and high-cost measures.” It is clear that campuses across the country are, to some degree, making plans for energy use reduction.

Moving from plans to action, however, adds responsibilities to intensely busy facilities teams. This article is intended to break down those steps.


These are 3 simple ways for universities to tackle energy efficiency on campus.

  1. Create a strategy for efficiency projects

  2. Design projects so you can work around students

  3. Uncover the best channels for funding retrofits


1. Implement smart strategy for your energy efficiency solutions

Most school campuses are aware of energy efficiency. Many are already working to implement these strategies. What’s the most overlooked option that campus facilities should consider?

“Energy efficiency” can refer to dozens of different types of projects. For this example, we’ll focus just on LED lighting due to the strategic mistakes we’ve seen over time. While LED lighting is often considered the easiest measure to tackle, there are two factors involved in LED lighting projects we consider most often overlooked by customers: focusing on high-usage areas first and neglecting to consider advanced lighting controls.

Lighting retrofits, as an efficiency solution, have been around for years. At the outset of high efficiency lighting, there was one simple upgrade and that was it. However, the refinement of the technology (more efficient ballasts, more efficient lamps, now retrofitting all fluorescent to LED) means paybacks are getting tougher to hit because we’ve been retrofitting and saving energy over time.

Hitting a good payback period – meaning your LED lighting project can pay for itself in 2-3 years – means installing projects designed for success, including reasonable ROI. We’ve experienced some sites that get excited about tackling high usage areas first – highly trafficked hallways vs utility closets or rarely used conference rooms. Here’s why that’s not a good idea.


LED Lighting Strategy Mistake 1: tackling all the high-usage areas first

Sure, if you retrofit your lighting that’s in high use, your payback for the project may come in at a year or less. That’s great! Finance is thrilled! But if you want to retrofit the rest of your building, the lighting’s payback might be above your approved threshold for a project, due to fixtures with lower operating hours.

If you need to break it out into a couple of projects to get the retrofit completed, we always recommend working with an ESCO (Energy Services Company) to help you design measures that will hit a reasonable payback by combining highly used areas with some lesser used ones, to average out an ROI within acceptable parameters.


LED Lighting Strategy Mistake 2: not installing controls

Controls can mean everything from a toggle on the wall (the kind of “control” we’re all familiar with) to advanced capabilities, including:

  • Scheduling and occupancy sensors, which provide automatic on/off based on occupancy patterns and eliminate the reliance on occupants to turn lights off manually when leaving a space.
  • Daylight harvesting, which captures additional savings by automatically dimming or turning off fixtures near windows or skylights where plenty of ambient light is coming into the room and the fixtures either dimmed or off have no detrimental effect on the light levels.
  • High-end trim allows for granular adjustment per occupant perceptions and/or space nuances, such as room reflectivity (i.e. ceiling, wall & floor color), room end-use over time and fixture spacing as well as providing extended life to equipment by operating below 100% of max output. This is especially important for college campuses that need lighting for dozens of different needs and a variety of age groups. Controls can allow you the granularity of lowering or raising the light output of a single fixture over one specific desk in a room of office cube spaces.

Less than half of campus energy plans include implementing building energy management systems, according to the Better Buildings Initiative. Some of these system could tie in lighting controls for highly effective efficiency upgrades. Also, integrated controls allow for fewer SKUs and part numbers for the lighting system, resulting in reduced maintenance stock required to be on hand. Lighting controls are key!


2. Complete energy efficiency projects with students around

How should schools tackle energy efficiency projects while working around students?

First of all: it’s entirely possible. Residential work in dorms or apartments of course requires additional planning and is easier to complete over breaks or the summer, but any updates to campus primarily requires communication between the university and the installing company, to find hours and spaces when not in use. We always recommend a kick-off meeting to ensure all parties involved understand building use before jumping in.

If working during normal business hours, your ESCO or facilities team can create traffic zones or pathways, negotiate buildings that don’t have classes on particular days or work off-hours, such as overnight shifts, based on space use. Your team – whether you’re using a third party or not – should be able to give-and-take to complete projects on time with attention to the top priority: not interrupting class time, student life and other building use requirements.

If a school keeps efficiency upgrades strictly in-house, we typically see that it’s a much slower process because installation crews or work zones remain on campus longer and efficiency savings are realized over a longer period of time. At the end of the day however, summertime for any school – college, university, high school – is prime time for efficiency upgrades.


3. Get the retrofits paid for

Colleges, universities and some independent schools don’t always have large budgets set aside for energy efficiency retrofits. What should schools know about paying for energy efficiency?

We typically see three tracks for funding projects like this: either the project is put through:

  1. A normal, capital expenditure process,
  2. Covered by an operations budget, or
  3. Obtains third-party financing (which can include performance contracts, a lease arrangement and/or low-interest loans).

Importantly, utility incentives buy down project cost if retrofits are designed to qualify for this kind of funding. This will lower overall capital required which makes projects more realistic to get approved. Additionally, versus other capital expenditures and improvements (desks in a classroom, new paint, IT systems), energy efficiency projects will pay for themselves and can sometimes be considered maintenance costs as well.

LED lighting retrofits and other types of energy efficiency projects are in reach for college and universities. Reach out for more information about getting started on your campus » 


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