Universities Tout Benefits of Green Power Partnership

EPA Program Also Open to Businesses and Government Agencies

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Ben Anderson is power plant maintenance and engineering manager at the University of Iowa.

Jay Uthoff is director of facilities services at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.

Posted: Wednesday, November 18, 2015 2:00 pm

In an effort to both save energy costs and address student concerns, many universities are exploring options to increase their campus’ energy efficiency and incorporate more renewable energy into the mix.

But keeping track of these efforts and measuring progress can be difficult, which is why the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Green Power Partnership can be a great resource.

The partnership is open to small businesses, local and state agencies, as well as colleges and universities, said Tegan Vaughn, an environmental protection specialist with EPA Region 7. It is completely voluntary and provides expert advice, tools to track progress and credibility for organizations that want to improve their energy efficiency and environmental image.

“We really want to help show your clients, your stakeholders and shareholders, that you walk the talk,” Vaughn said in a presentation at the recent Growing Sustainable Communities Conference in Dubuque, Iowa.

While many universities and colleges are exploring ways to diversify their energy sources, publicizing improvements and future plans can be more challenging, said Ben Anderson, the power plant maintenance and engineering manager at the University of Iowa Power Plant, in Iowa City, Iowa.

“It’s important to get that information out there and share with folks what we’re doing,” he said. This is especially true if organizations are trying to reduce energy use, since many students or employees might not even realize how much of a difference turning the lights off can make.

It’s “making them aware of energy,” Anderson said. “How can we change the culture if they’re not even aware of where the energy is coming from?”

The University of Iowa’s plant is a district energy, combined heat and power facility, Anderson said, and is targeting a reduction in its use of fossil fuel, with coal being used as only 20 percent of its energy mix, which also includes biomass materials and natural gas.

“It’s not really a power plant, it’s more of an energy plant,” he said.

The University of Iowa Hospital and Clinics are a critical customer for the plant, Anderson said, so “reliability is key.”

The plant has been burning oat hulls from the Quaker Oats facility in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, since 2003 and new biomass materials are being slowly introduced to see what combinations will work best, such as quick-growing, non-invasive grasses.

“You have to be careful with it, do it at the right speeds,” Anderson said. “We’re putting different material into machines designed for coal.”

The university also is considering adding solar energy to the mix, with the goal of creating a resilient energy portfolio and choosing "what the best mix is and going forward with it,” Anderson said.

But the power partnership doesn’t just focus on more energy generation equipment. For businesses, organizations and colleges dependent on an energy provider, the plan has other resources that also can help conserve energy.

Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, is one example of how these efforts can make a difference. The campus does not have its own power plant, but set goals through the partnership plan to contain energy costs and improve its environmental stewardship, said Jay Uthoff, the college’s director of Facilities Services.

The college focused on educating its student body about sustainability and energy conservation, as well as incorporating the renewable energy that would work best, such as a wind turbine and solar panels on the roofs of some buildings. Forty-two percent of the college’s electricity comes from these sources, and Uthoff said he expects it to grow.

The college is now set to reduce the campus greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent in 2015, compared to when they began the plan in 2007, Uthoff said, adding that “we’ve kind of captured all that low-hanging fruit with energy reductions. Not using electricity is the best way for us to minimize our carbon footprint.

“Behavior change is the hardest thing to drive,” he added.

The university also incorporated LEED standards into new buildings and some older buildings that were remodeled, and they are considering alternative fuels for the boiler heating system.

“The EPA partnership helps us to maintain focus,” Uthoff said. “Now our name is out there in this bigger context and we have to keep that going as well.

“And as new people come to campus, it’s easier to get tuned in to what we’re trying to do,” he said.

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