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Economic and Environmental Savings Found in Recent UC Energy Efforts

New technology in UC vending machines, a coming roof garden and other building renovations, and a new natural gas contract are and will make for greater energy efficiencies and a cleaner environment at UC.

Date: 4/18/2012 12:00:00 AM
By: M.B. Reilly
Phone: (513) 556-1824
Photos By: Dottie Stover

UC ingot   From contracts to conservation, the University of Cincinnati is focusing on environmental and economic improvements.

For instance, earlier this year, UC’s Board of Trustees approved a new contract to purchase natural gas for the next four-and-a-half years in order to produce electricity at UC’s power plant. It’s a move that will save the university about $2.5 million per year and will reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the region by about 79,000 tons annually. That’s equivalent to taking 8,936 houses off the power grid.

The environmental and economic savings stem from the fact that the new natural-gas contract will allow UC to reduce energy purchases from utilities that rely on coal-powered plants. Natural gas is both a cleaner and, currently, a cheaper form of energy vs. coal.

And this new contract comes on top of a contract signed in 2011 where the university agreed to buy methane recovered from abandoned coal mines as part of its fuel mix. By recovering and using this methane – which has essentially been considered a waste product until now – conserves on use of fossil fuels.

Overall, by having its own power plant and generating its own electricity, UC is saving money and conserving energy because it serves campus far more efficiently than would buying power from the local utility company. That’s because UC’s plant makes electricity and uses its waste heat to produce steam. The plant also produces power near where it will be used, eliminating transmission loss, and makes it at the right voltage, so it doesn’t have to be funneled through transformers.
UC power plant

Over the past five years, the university has reduced energy use per square foot per student by a total of 16 percent, which avoids about $3 million per year in additional energy-cost increases.


A variety of recent and upcoming building renovations will result in greater energy efficiencies throughout campus. These are important because buildings are the world’s energy eaters, consuming nearly 40 percent of overall energy resources in the United States – more than transportation or industry. For instance, commercial and residential buildings guzzle 70 percent of all electricity in the U.S.

This spring – in early May, UC’s Procter Hall, home to the College of Nursing, will install a roof garden that will not only include a walkway for building users but will conserve on energy use since the garden will serve to insulate the roof, keeping it cooler and prolonging roof life by minimizing ultraviolet exposure. It will also serve as one of numerous systems on campus that reduce water runoff.

In reducing water runoff, the Procter Hall roof garden will be the latest of other similar systems already on campus. UC currently contains 22 underground water-detention and retention tanks located on both East and West campuses that serve to reuse and recycle water runoff to irrigate plants and landscaping around campus and/or to delay the release of rainwater to keep it from overwhelming the sewer system.


Other ongoing or upcoming building upgrades are focused on necessary updating to the oldest, most strategic basic-science education and research facilities in order to meet current and future academic priorities while also meeting energy and environmental goals. On a campus like UC, the big energy users are science buildings, so it makes sense to focus on these structures, including

Renovations within Rieveschl Hall’s 400- , 500-, 600-, 700-, and 800-level labs, facilities which date back to 1968, constitute a multiyear, $45 million project that began in 2008 and is being completed in phases. The renovations include complete replacement of building infrastructure, including heating, cooling, ventilation and exhaust systems, saving up to $500,000 annually. The new systems integrate energy-recovery in their operations, as well as conservation, adjusting to reduce energy use when spaces are not in use. More efficient plumbing and lighting systems will serve to reduce energy use by 30-40 percent. Chemistry lab renovations on the 500 level are complete while renovations to the 400-level chemistry labs and the 600-level biology classrooms will be complete by June 2012. Renovation of the 700-level biology lab space will be complete in early 2013, followed by renovations to the 800 level.

Renovations in the 800- and part of the 900 levels of Rhodes Hall will be complete in summer 2012. The $7.5 million renovations include complete replacement of building infrastructure, with energy conservation in mind. For instance, heat (in winter) and cool air (in summer) will be captured from air being exhausted from the building and then recycled within the building, resulting in a reduction in energy use.  
Replacement of the 40-year-old air handler in Crosley Tower during summer 2012, at a cost of $1.5 million, will result in energy savings.

All 146 vending Pepsi vending machines on UC’s West Campus were recently outfitted with motion sensors, allowing them to “power down” when no potential users are nearby, for instance when a building is closed for the night. When in “powered down” mode, the machines’ lights turn off and any cooling setting may rise, though still within food-safety limits. UC’s net investment in this project was just over $15,000, but the investment is expected to reduce energy costs by just over $28,000 per year.

Improvements made last year by UC in how it chills water for the cooling of buildings just took first prize in an international design competition that focuses on energy efficiency in new buildings. UC won the “Thinking Buildings Award,” which recognizes the best in energy-efficient solutions in retrofitting commercial buildings. The award is sponsored by Grundfos, one of the world's largest pump manufacturers, based in Denmark.

In the simplest terms, UC was recognized for changing how its chilled water system works, transitioning from a system where the water to be chilled was stored in an open basin (think of a very large and deep swimming pool) and then pumped vertically 120 feet into a cooling tower by means of electrically powered pumps.

The new system consists of a closed storage tank of water to be chilled vs. the open basin. Because the tank is now closed (vs. an open basin or “swimming pool” of water) and attaches to the cooling tower via pipes that now form a completely enclosed or “closed-loop” system, the electrically powered pumps that were once needed to pump water (about 60,000 gallons per minute) vertically 120 feet to the cooling tower no longer have to do near as much work.

Said Joe Harrell, executive director of utility services, “Now, air pressure is doing most of the work that the pumps had to do. So, now, the pumps only need to use power to move the water the last 20 feet of the chilling process. Air pressure actually moves the water for the first 100 feet.”

This new system saves UC about $177,000 per year and reduces UC’s annual electricity use by 2.5 million kilowatt hours (KWh), enough electricity to power 208 homes for an entire year.

See past news on UC energy upgrades to buildings from 2011 and 2010.

See other UC news related to Earth Day, including
  • Find out about more UC Earth Week events, including presentations, workshops and the planting of about 100 trees starting at 10 a.m., Sunday, April 22, on UC’s Victory Parkway campus, 2220 Victory Parkway, Walnut Hills.