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Sustainability in Higher Education - Bringing New Life to Old Institutions

December 26, 2013

When most people hear the word “sustainability” they think of consumer products, like post-consumer paper cups from a local coffee shop. It’s harder to get people to understand how sustainability applies to our infrastructure, like the buildings in which we all live, work, learn and play.

In the higher education arena, many large institutions are facing this challenge as they try to get decision makers and stakeholders to understand the fact that large buildings need to make strides to meet energy efficiency and sustainability goals now, before they become mandates. Current sustainability challenges are becoming more prevalent in older higher education institutions, where building performance has begun to drop off, while indoor comfort remains steadily important and vital to fostering a good learning environment. 

This was an important topic of conversation at the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) in October, where I presented a case study on a community college that stands out among the rest, as it is already meeting sustainability goals.

Central Piedmont Community College is North Carolina’s largest community college, made up of six campuses and over three million square feet. Central Piedmont serves over 70,000 students, functioning as a true community college – supporting the region in education while keeping up with the changing economy and local industries – and thus has seen 33 percent growth since 2007.

While the school system is relatively large, its utility bill is proportionally small. The total utility cost for the 2012-2013 school year came in at $3.66 million, an increase of only 8 percent over 2007. Yet the school’s energy use intensity (EUI) dropped drastically over the same six years at nearly 30 percent, meaning the college successfully reduced consumption.

This reduction did not come without sound practices that have lead Central Piedmont to become an institution leader in sustainability. The college set aggressive goals for itself, including benchmarking utilities, managing performance contracts, and designing guides for waste and air pollution as well as future construction projects that take both energy efficiency and sustainability into account.

To help with compliance, Central Piedmont ensures all new students and employees understand its sustainability practices with training on its recycling and energy policies and goals. They also offer a number of classes that teach students actual sustainability practices, like how to make bio-diesel, composting, and future building automation systems.

In January the school is adding a new classroom building which will include rooftop space for solar thermal, solar photo voltaic, wind and smart grid labs. 

Even with strong sustainability practices in place, the school still identified a need for additional cost savings. The school worked with Trane to reduce energy use by retrofitting more than 30 buildings throughout the six campuses, reducing both energy and water consumption. The school’s retrofits were split over two performance contracts and have guaranteed at least $950,000 in cost savings annually.

While Central Piedmont Community College is a great success story, the reality for many institutions is that getting buy-in from internal stakeholders such as school boards, faculty and students can be a big obstacle to adopting sustainable practices. However, a trusted advisor like Trane can help provide data on energy consumption reductions and cost savings benefits to help bring everyone on board. In the end, efficiency and sustainability upgrades can help breathe new life into institutions young and old

Click here to learn more about how Trane works with higher education customers to deliver improved building performance and reduced operating costs.