No quick fix for WLU energy woes

Over a year and a half ago, Wilfrid Laurier University’s physical resources department undertook an extensive energy auditing process and contracted out the creation of an energy management plan (EMP) for the university’s buildings.

“What initiated it was that the university didn’t have any plans as it pertains to energy management, nothing existed,” explained Ray Robichaud, business manager at WLU physical resources. “I started about three and a half years ago … and no one was really responsible for energy management on campus.”

In fact, since there are few electricity, water, or gas meters on campus, it is difficult to determine what areas are using what quantity of utilities. The plan suggests almost $450,000 worth of meters so the university has a better idea of where its money is going.

The EMP was completed in December by environmental consulting firm Conestoga-Rovers and Associates and suggests that substantial savings, financial and ultimately environmental.

The Current Situation

The EMP examines campus use of water, electricity and gas utilities and offers suggestions for the replacement or refurbishment of everything from light bulbs to gas boilers and windows.

As some structures on campus such as the Arts building date to the 1950’s, many components require replacement at the end of their life cycle – in many cases within the next year or two.

The report points to five boilers at the Waterloo campus, for example, that “are first priority and require immediate replacement” at a combined cost of over $500,000. As well, a table lists 27 buildings and areas of larger buildings whose windows range from described as anywhere from “aged/deteriorated” to “end of life” in the case of the Arts building “C” and “E” wing.

However, the report is meant first and foremost as a guideline noted John Ferguson, who oversaw the auditing process at Conestoga-Rovers. “I don’t think anywhere it was suggesting that anything had to be done immediately or that things had been deficient in the way they were originally done,” he explained,” But on the life cycle, we’re offering opportunities to install higher-efficiency equipment and demonstrating payback for that.”

First Steps, Potential Savings

“We would start with the re-commissioning of all the buildings because the payback, the annual savings based on that change, was I think close to a million dollars,” Robichaud said when asked what areas would be focused on first.

If the “high priority re-commissioning” called for in the report was addressed at a cost of $628,000, the university would see energy cost savings of $897,200 – meaning that the project would pay back in full from savings in less than nine months.

Further re-commissioning worth $350,000 would be paid off by the energy saved as a result in only a year and a half. This is of course not examining the greenhouse gas emissions avoided by such work. The university currently spends roughly $4.5 million in utilities annually.

The problem with addressing the concerns emerging from the EMP findings is a financial one. While savings would be substantial if the university fixed all the issues that exist, the money is hard to come by and the problems must be addressed one-by-one on a priority basis.

“We don’t have the money at our disposal now,” Robichaud explained the predicament. “Even though we have a plan we still have to put together a business case and get approval for the funding.”

For the ‘deferred maintenance’ the re-commissioning entails, Robichaud said, “We’re provided with a certain amount of funding from the government annually, every institution is, so we’re doing a fixed amount annually.”

“We’re also given some money from the university, it all depends, yearly it changes, but the point is [that] there is funding, it’s just we need to allocate it accordingly. There’s funding there [for deferred maintenance projects], it’s just some years we may have to go with the highest priority ones.”

Robichaud added that a million-dollar capital request was approved for work to be done this fall, work that will largely focus on fire-safety equipment.

“When we ran the capital plan it just made sense that all the high priority life-safety issues would percolate to the stop,” he said, giving an example of how funds must be allocated according to priority, in this case bringing older buildings up to current fire codes. “A lot of the changes we’re doing are just [because] it’s just the right thing to do.”

While funding and need dictate what energy-management projects will be addressed first, the university is approaching areas of need in energy efficiency as best it can. Robichaud suggested that a new person may be hired that would address the issues the EMP outlines.

Grading Laurier

Sustainability coordinator Sarah English explained that at the moment the best thing that can be done is more thoroughly understand what problems exist. She is currently in the midst of conducting a sustainability assessment to be completed in the next month or two that, she says, “…will point out areas where we’re doing poorly and should focus on and areas where we’re doing better.”

She has also submitted information to the College Sustainability Report Card, an organization that provides online ratings of sustainability at post-secondary institutions in the U.S. and Canada.

A grade for Laurier is still pending and will be posted in the next month or so, according to the organization. Despite professing “environmental stewardship as a guiding principle”, the University of Waterloo received only a D+ grade for sustainability for 2010.

According to Ferguson, those involved at Laurier are taking the best course of action they can at the moment. “Truthfully I think they’re taking all the appropriate steps for them to go down the road,” he said. “For them to actually pay for a [EMP] report – a lot of universities haven’t done that.”

What Comes Next?

For the time being, the best course of action to mitigate energy efficiency problems is to change behaviours of people on campus. Rather than simply updating buildings to include light dimmers or motion sensors, Robichaud said that it comes down to people making an effort toward conservation, even simply turning lights off.

“If you install technology alone like sensors, you’ll get – if you’re lucky – a three per cent savings,” he said. “But if you include behavioural changes in that you can get up to 40 per cent so that aspect of it is huge.” He also highlighted the commitment that all new construction by the university be built to strict efficiency standards.

English concluded, saying, “With all sustainability initiatives, there’s so much that can be done but they all take time, they all take money, they take research, they take commitment and support.”

“Unfortunately I can’t say much more now than that everything is being discussed, we’re slowly working towards it. That’s how it works.”