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University of Utah Named Partner in Elite National Initiative for Increasing Energy Efficiency

Net zero retrofit of 1970 Architecture building is part of the U’s commitment to reduce energy consumption.

December 2, 2011 – The University of Utah (the U) was recognized in a White House event today for its significant, campus-wide commitments to achieving energy efficiency.

Based on these commitments, the U was one of five U.S. universities invited by the White House and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to be inaugural partners in the Better Buildings Challenge. The goal of the Challenge—a national leadership initiative designed to stimulate economic growth by encouraging energy savings—is to make American buildings 20 percent more energy efficient by 2020.

“The entire university community can be proud to be counted among this select group of institutions that are leading the way to more efficient and environmentally sound ways of operation,” said A. Lorris Betz, interim president of the University of Utah. “As the flagship institution of higher learning in the state, it is incumbent on us to continue to maintain these high standards for the benefit of future generations.”

Among the U’s plans for achieving lasting energy savings on campus is the Architecture building, which was showcased as a premier example for its planned renovation. Rather than tearing down and replacing the 1970 structure, the U has slated the facility for a net zero retrofit, which means it may generate as much energy as it consumes when the project is completed. In 2010, the project was recognized by the DOE as exemplary and selected to participate in its Commercial Building Partnership. As a partner, the U is receiving technical assistance from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which is working with faculty, students and Utah’s building industry professionals on renovation plans.

“From the beginning, we have envisioned the net zero project as a living laboratory for students, faculty and professionals to engage in education, research and hands-on experience to create energy efficient buildings,” said Brenda Scheer, dean of the U’s College of Architecture + Planning. “There are thousands of buildings like ours in the U.S., and we hope the visibility and support from the Better Building Challenge will provide a model for the entire country.”

The U’s energy commitments and long-term focus on sustainability are not new. In 2008, the U signed on to the American College and University President’s Climate Commitment working toward zero carbon emissions. The Energy and Environmental Stewardship Initiative released in 2010 aims for the campus to be carbon neutral by 2050.

“It’s just smart business,” said Michael Perez, associate vice president of facilities management. “We aim to use alternative energy sources when possible and reduce energy consumption in new construction and existing building stock. Operating at these higher efficiencies—even with modest changes—pays long-term dividends that can save millions of dollars for the taxpayers of Utah.”

In May 2011, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ranked the U as third in the nation on its list of college and university “green power partners.” The U was recognized for its voluntary purchase—motivated by a student-led campaign—of 85 million kilowatt-hours of green electricity, certified renewable energy and solar panel installations on campus.

Other projects at the university demonstrate what could be in store in the future.

  • In 2009, the U of Utah installed a co-generation plant that generates both electricity and high temperature hot water for building heating. This project removed the old high temperature water generators and installed a new high efficiency turbine in their place.  The turbine produces approximately 20 percent of the electricity used on campus. It has a heat recovery unit and duct burner to capture the waste heat from the turbine to generate the high temperature hot water for heating the main campus.
  • Another highly efficient system utilizes thermal storage technology and was built not only to support the recently completed James L. Sorenson Molecular Biotechnology Building USTAR Innovation Center, but it also replaces aging and inefficient chillers, both water and air cooled, in ten existing buildings on campus. The plant utilizes a design feature known as evaporative cooling that produces chilled water using the cooling towers rather than chillers during the fall, winter and spring seasons, creating a significant reduction of electricity.  The thermal storage design allows cooling water to be drawn from a 3.5 million gallon tank during the day, when electric demand charges are high.  The chillers recharge the tank with cold water at night, when demand charges are low, again reducing electric charges.
  • The Frederick Albert Sutton Building completed in 2009 was the first LEED Gold certified building on campus and the just-opened Natural History Museum of Utah at the Rio Tinto Center expects to be awarded a LEED Gold certification.  Plans for a solar-powered roof at the museum are expected to generate 25 percent of its total energy usage.
  • The University of Utah was awarded a renewable energy grant in 2010 by the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, administered by the Utah Office of Energy Development.  Grant funds are being utilized to pursue a solar power purchase agreement giving the University the ability to leverage a larger photovoltaic system than could have been purchased outright.  This solar array is being installed on the roofs of two campus buildings. The 534 kilowatt array will produce about 1.1 million kilowatt-hours per year, which is enough energy to run the lights in the massive Marriott Library for a year.

More information about the wide range of the University of Utah’s energy initiatives is available online at the Office of Sustainability website.