U. saves $25,000 on heating with natural gas

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Brown may not be harnessing the sun’s energy, but by using more natural gas this winter, the University has reduced its heating bill as well as its negative environmental impact.

The University has so far saved $250,000 by relying more heavily on natural gas this year. The University will likely save around $600,000 by the end of the heating season, said Chris Powell, director of sustainable energy and environmental initiatives.

Besides saving Brown money, using natural gas also makes the University “cleaner and greener” Powell said.

Previously, the University had relied more heavily on bunker fuel. Bunker fuel, one of the least distilled forms of petrol, releases more carbon, sulfur and nitrogen gases – all greenhouse gases – than natural gas does . “You are emitting more pollutants for the same amount of work” when using bunker fuel, said Steven Hamburg, associate professor of environmental studies.

On Earth Day last April, President Ruth Simmons announced that the University would reduce emissions of fossil fuels from its central heating plant by 30 percent in the fiscal year of 2008, a Nov. 1 Herald article reported.

To achieve this goal, the University switched to a completely natural gas heating system in the months that see less demand for natural gas – October, November, April and May. In the winter, the University runs mostly off natural gas supplied by an energy company. But when the demand for natural gas exceeds the energy supplier’s ability to provide it, they can tell the University to switch to its bunker fuel system, Powell said.

Low temperatures and high gas prices usually cause these interruptions, he added.

The University further saved money on heating by changing how it bought its fuel. Previously it had purchased all of its fuel in August. This year it bought natural gas in “layers” effectively spreading “the price risk over several months,” Powell wrote in an e-mail.

The total cost of heating will not be known until the end of the heating season; however, last year about $6 million was spent on heating fuel, according to The Herald article.

Despite the fact that this winter has been significantly colder than last, this year’s greenhouse gas emissions have remained flat, Powell said.

The University in January announced plans to further reduce carbon emissions following the recommendations of the University’s Energy and Environmental Advisory Committee. The plan calls for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 42 percent below 2007 levels in existing buildings, having new construction meet a silver standard in an energy-friendly rating system and reducing greenhouse gas emissions for all new buildings 15 to 30 percent.

In the future, Brown is looking to expand its co-generation capacity to further reduce heating costs and environmental impact, Powell said. Co-generation is the ability to generate both electricity and heat from the same fuel by use of steam. Major changes, however, are needed before co-generation can be realized, he said.

The electricity produced from the steam could power the cooling system, reducing the University’s demand for electricity in the summer. This dual heating-cooling system would reduce how much the University spends on electricity, as well as creating a more efficient system, Hamburg said.

Switching completely off gas to renewable energy is not in Brown’s immediate future, Powell said. Most forms of renewable energy such as solar and wind power are not yet cost-effective, nor does the University have the proper space for them. It is much more feasible for Brown to invest in renewable energy projects elsewhere than create its own, he said.

Brown can improve its energy policy in other ways, Aden Van Noppen ’09, founder of emPOWER and member of the EEAC, wrote in an e-mail to The Herald. “Many of the windows on campus lose heat around the frame,” and these windows need to be replaced, Van Noppen wrote.

There are “‘smart’ heating systems that monitor when people are in the building or room,” according to Van Noppen. Deploying this kind of system would save fuel in “places like the BioMed Center that stay heated all night even though no one is there,” she added.

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