Surviving the sizzle: University copes with record heat

Cara Carley

Record-breaking temperatures in Texas this summer have significantly raised electricity and water demand, but UTD officials say the university has been working hard to prevent any disruption to campus life.

While Richardson is coping with a water shortage and electricity grids are running at full capacity, other cities in the state have also faced the brunt of the blistering heat.

Texas surpassed previous high temperature records set in 1998, and officials from the National Weather Service are predicting this season will finish as the hottest summer ever in U.S. history.

According to a report released by the Energy and Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, electricity consumption demands have exceeded previous high records of demand from 2009.

ERCOT, which supplies electricity to three quarters of the state, could initiate emergency procedures such as rolling brownouts depending on how low electricity reserves dip, said ERCOT spokeswoman Dottie Roark.

“If the temperature starts spiking, so does demand,” Roark said. “We need extra reserves of electricity to balance the supply and demand an all paths of the grid. Large industrial consumers and businesses are paid to be dropped (from the grid) in emergency situations.”

These procedures have kicked off more than once this summer, as Texas energy reserves dropped below 1,500 megawatts.

Students at UTD have been equally impacted by the energy crisis, as students and faculty received “Power Watch” — energy conservation directives from ERCOT — throughout the summer.

With the start of fall, population on campus has increased, which in turn has accelerated electricity consumption. Although the possibility of the university shutting down from a statewide energy crisis is low, UTD officials are trying to ensure efficient consumption of electricity both in the academic buildings and the residence halls, said Dorothea Junt, UTD’s energy conservation manager.

“If we see rolling brownouts, we can take down a building,” she said. “We do have the capability, but we really hate employing it.”

However, UTD’s infrastructure has been designed from the start with a goal to be energy efficient, Junt said.

The Central Energy Plant, or CEP, located across from Berkner Hall, provides air-conditioning for the campus in a much more efficient way, resulting in reduced electricity consumption and energy conservation on campus.

The CEP’s electric-powered chillers cool water to about 41 degrees that is circulated to different buildings through underground ducts, said Kelly Kinnard, director of Physical Plant Services. When outside air blows over the chilled water through the vents, it cools down to 76 degrees and provides air-conditioning to buildings on campus.

“(The CEP) is still using electricity, but it is using less electricity than if we had a separate chiller in every building,” Kinnard said.

In 2006, when the Natural Science & Engineering Research Laboratory, or NSERL, came on the electricity grid, the consumption went up by more than 12 percent. Now, because of the temperature control that the labs need, it contributes to one third of the campus’ total energy consumption, Junt said.

As the campus continues to add more square footage in terms of buildings, the CEP is quickly approaching its maximum capacity to provide sufficient cooling and heating to the entire campus, Kinnard said.

“We are maxed out but we can’t add any more (chillers or boilers) to the current plant,” he said. “If we wanted to continue building, we had to bring in another utility plant to supplement the existing one.”

Older, inefficient equipment in the CEP has been disposed of and bigger, more efficient chillers have replaced the older ones to aid the conservation process, Kinnard said. A new Satellite Utility Plant is also being built adjacent to the McDermott Library, which will take some load off the CEP, he said.

Since air-conditioning at UTD is centralized, buildings and classrooms don’t have individual temperature controls installed in them. That’s a problem many students have complained about, said Saskia Versteeg, physics senior and president of Students for Environmental Awareness.

However, individually controlled thermostats are not as efficient as a centrally controlled unit, because each classroom will operate at different temperatures, which in turn will exert a higher load on the grid and thereby increasing electricity consumption, Junt said.

The dormitories in the residence halls are equipped with individual thermostats that can be adjusted within a fixed temperature range, she said.

“We have started looking at more energy efficient thermostats, which — instead of staying at a temperature until someone changes it — have a four- or 24-hour setback,” Junt said.

UTD President David Daniel has also approved installing digital smart meters on some of the buildings that consume more energy to be able to obtain their individual consumption figures, Junt said.

These meters will provide officials with real-time data to assess the energy efficiency of the new structures like the Student Services Building, which received a Leed Platinum rating last year for sustainability, she said.

While the university does its share to conserve electricity and reduce consumption cost, students, faculty and staff can also contribute by shutting down computers and switching off lights before leaving their offices and classrooms, Junt said.

ONCOR, a major energy distributer in Texas, helps in the energy conservation process by installing smart technology meters and cards on its transmission lines so that energy loss can be minimized, said Megan Wright, ONCOR spokesperson.

ONCOR maintains its distribution lines well in advance of summer to avoid line breakdowns due to heat. Despite that step, occasional outages do occur when the temperatures stay elevated consecutively for many days, she said.

Most residential energy providers and ONCOR provide notifications to customers about ways to conserve energy in their homes, which involve simple activities like setting the thermostat to 85 degrees when going out, Wright said.

Environmental student organizations on campus, however, see the university as a major player in conserving energy in the future.

“Considering that (students) spend 10 hours every day on campus, we can make a very big difference if we ask the university to install motion-sensor lights,” said Versteeg.

Josef Velten, graduate student and president of the Renewable Energy Club, has a different perspective, saying individual efforts don’t make a significant difference in the conservation process. If the university continues to grow, it will need a major influx of funds from the university to ensure energy conservation on campus, Velten said.

“How do you save energy by building a building?” he said. “You cannot contribute to energy savings by building a new anything. But if a new building is absolutely necessary, then you can design to conserve as much energy as possible.”

All on-campus apartments and older buildings should be retro-fitted to make them more energy efficient, particularly the apartments in Phase I Waterview Park apartments, Velten said.

Meanwhile, water continues to remain a problem for the university.

For the past few weeks, Richardson has been under Stage 2 Drought Restriction. Consistent with the Richardson City Council’s directives, the university has reduced its sprinkler times and increased hand-watering times, in an effort to conserve water, Junt said.

“Hand-watering is insurance for our investment in landscape and trees,” she said. “Our landscape crews start work here at 4 a.m. and leave work at 2 p.m.”

There are a large number of people working in the background to keep the electricity running and the campus beautiful to ensure efficient conservation without compromising the comfort of students, Junt said.

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