University News

U. expects 28 percent increase in utility costs

In response to rising natural gas prices, U. will focus on boosting conservation efforts

Senior Staff Writer
Friday, November 21, 2014

Over the next five years, the amount that the University pays for utilities such as gas and electric is predicted to increase by about 28 percent, or $5 million, said Christopher Powell, assistant vice president for sustainable energy and environmental initiatives at the Department of Facilities Management. Last fiscal year, the University spent $17.8 million on utility costs.

The cost increase results from projected rises in electricity prices. Starting Jan. 1, electricity prices for the typical Rhode Island resident will rise by 23.6 percent, National Grid — Brown’s energy provider — announced Thursday.

The University will see an increase comparable to that of residential homes, said David Graves, a National Grid spokesperson. Natural gas is “clearer and less expensive” than coal and oil, so there is a higher demand for it among customers, Graves said.

Rises in utilities costs are primarily the result of external forces of supply and demand, Powell said.

The demand for coal and oil has decreased substantially since 2000, according to figures provided by the Independent System Operator of New England, a nonprofit organization that regulates electricity flow in the region.

In 2000, oil accounted for 22 percent of electric energy production in New England, while coal accounted for 18 percent and natural gas 15 percent. In 2013, total electrical energy production was less than 1 percent oil, 6 percent coal and 46 percent natural gas.

Danny Musher, programming services officer at the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources, cited the closure of several New England oil and coal power plants as a factor increasing the demand for natural gas.

Graves said “within New England, there’s very little supply” due to constraints on regional pipelines and New England’s distance from the natural gas supply.

“The longer the transmission distance, the larger the cost to get the gas to those points,” Graves said. Several projects are underway to increase the supply of natural gas to the New England region.

Despite facing increased pressure relative to other regions in the United States, New England is “a leader in investing in energy-efficiency,” Musher said. Rhode Island was ranked the seventh-most energy efficient state in the country in 2012, The Herald reported at the time.

Musher said that though conservation efforts will not entirely solve the problem, conserving energy resources can drive down energy costs.

When the cost of oil skyrocketed in 2009, Facilities was forced to take proactive measures in response, said Stephen Maiorisi, vice president for Facilities Management. “We had to do a lot of energy conservation,” he said.

Powell said the Office of Sustainable Energy and Environmental Initiatives and Facilities hopes to invest in the use of LED technology and enhance the retro-commissioning program, which already uses software to find energy use anomalies in 20 campus buildings.

In the new School of Engineering building, set to be completed in 2018, Facilities Management will “be looking at combining heat and power” to produce electricity and heating and cooling systems simultaneously, Powell said. The goal is to reach as close to “zero impact” as possible without disrupting research and teaching, Powell said.

“The feasibility of those (initiatives) depends on what the (prices) are,” Maiorisi said.

“Relatively speaking, our utilities per square foot have been managed really well,” said Beppie Huidekoper, executive vice president for finance and administration.

An increase in utilities costs “puts pressure on revenues” such as tuition and other fees, Huidekoper said. Having lower utilities costs gives the University “more discretion” over choices such as growing staff or increasing salaries, she said. “The conservation efforts have allowed us to allocate resources to some other things.”

Meggie Patton, University energy and environmental programs outreach coordinator, said students and staff members can have substantial impacts on energy costs.

“We’re busy, and we have class, and we don’t take a whole lot of ownership on the utilities costs,” she said. “If students take small measures like unplugging electrical devices and turning lights off, suddenly that’s going to have a major impact on our utilities.”

The student group Climate Action League partners with Facilities to provide data and resources that support energy-efficiency initiatives.

Group member Haily Tran ’16 said the group will work with the Rhode Island Department of Administration to distribute information to the community about how much utilities costs are rising in the state and why. The group will start gathering student volunteers after winter break to help with community outreach, she added.

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