Tuesday, August 19, 2008


That Hurt

Last week I was in a meeting with the college controller – the money guy – who mentioned that this July’s gas and electric bill for the college was forty percent higher than last July’s.  (And this isn’t one of the really huge cc’s, either.)  Over the course of a year, that’s roughly half a million dollars extra on what, in the short term, is really a non-optional expense.
The increase was almost entirely at the ‘rate’ level, rather than the ‘use’ level.  Which means that unless we have a really mild winter, we’re hosed.  And while any given winter may or may not be relatively mild, over the years, there will be some nasty ones.
Since we aren’t in a part of the country that’s awash in money – Wyoming is looking better and better – we can’t just dip into the magical replenishing money pot and either pay the bills without incident or rebuild the campus to be greener.  Yes, we consider energy efficiency on those rare occasions when we can build, but in between, there are real limits to what we can realistically do. (This is especially true given the age of many of the main buildings.)  And the weather will do what it will do.
Community colleges generally are in an awkward position when it comes to energy use.  Most cc’s don’t have dorms, which is both good and bad.  It’s good in the sense that we have fewer buildings to heat, cool, and maintain, but it’s bad in the sense that a true measure of our carbon footprint includes students commuting to and from campus.  (In four years in the dorms at Snooty Liberal Arts College, I never had a car, but I never missed a class.)  We generally don’t have the massive athletics facilities or student life compounds, either.  What we do have is essential, and therefore devilishly hard to cut.  And since our per-student aid (and tuition) is much lower than our counterparts’, our extra efficiency carries no payoff.  It’s simply assumed as a baseline.  When you’re already running with minimal slack, external shocks are that much harder to absorb.
(To make matters worse, our operating aid is actually being cut at the same time.  Income down, expenses up.  Double ouch.  And don’t even get me started on health insurance…)
This kind of money is particularly hard to come by, since it doesn’t typically attract the attention of philanthropists.  (“These BTU’s brought to you by…”)  It has to come out of the operating budget, which is the same budget that pays salaries (and repels donors).  We can’t float bond issues for operating expenses.  Politicians are sometimes willing to throw ‘capital’ money our way – that is, construction – but operating budgets are largely considered our problem.  How, exactly, we’re supposed to use those buildings goes unaddressed.
Administrators catch a lot of flak for championing online classes, but honestly, if we were to move the Saturday classes online and shut down the classroom buildings on Saturdays, that would save a meaningful chunk of change.  It’s not ideal, of course, but neither is cutting a half-dozen positions to pay the gas bill.

I actually think moving Saturday classes online could be a good option to explore. I don't think it's wrong to advocate for online classes *done well* as a service to students and as a way of working within budget and/or space constraints. If you don't have the appropriate tech support and infrastructure to run these courses well, though, then I think that's where faculty get persnickety about administrators who champion online classes. Good teaching requires resources, even if - sometimes especially if - it's online. I know I require far MORE resources to teach writing online, for example, than I do to teach it in the classroom. Online does not necessarily equal cheaper.
Uhm...I know some NJ school districts are moving towards solar panels to off-set utility costs. Since NJ has a generous plan to subsized non-profits in going solar some forward thinking districts are installing panels where they can.

Another way to save is conservation: One district in particular has been agressive at powering down (shutting off lights when a classroom/office isn't being used, unplugging refridgerators for the weekend, shutting down unused PCs, etc). They managed to save 100K in just agressively switching things off.

It's not much, but when you're getting hosed by utility costs, the first step is aggressive conservation, the second is to rethink infrastructure.
I'm pretty skeptical about the "not much we can do to conserve" line. Yes, your buildings are probably old and leaky, and yes you can only turn the heat down so far. But explore retrofitting in a serious way (including finding out if you qualify for federal/state subsidies, as calugg suggests) and get an environmental assessment done to tell you what you really can do before you just write off savings made through conservation altogether. I'm no expert but looking around my campus I can think of literally hundreds of things they should be doing to conserve energy, a proper environmental assessment could probably do wonders.
Our college started investing in efficiency retrofits about two years ago with most of the work done in the last year. We haven't gotten to the point of confiscating private heaters (this could cost you a ton if your buildings are drafty) or refrigerators, like some places have done, our PCs might shut themselves down in the near future.

However, despite that emphasis, our buildings are still too cold in the summer, often colder than the dewpoint outside. They might be doing it to keep humidity (and mold) down, but wearing a sweater in summer is nuts.

You can float a bond issue to do construction that fixes leaky buildings. It is even money that goes back into the local economy and gives immediate payback in lower utility costs. (Will make your tuition dollar go further.) We get a tiny amount of capital maintenance money each year from the state, which might be another angle to take if the legislature is interested in economic stimulus.
My university started an initiative a couple of years ago to find ways to save energy. One thing they did was install auto shut off lights in a lot of classrooms, offices, and bathrooms. If someone walks in it turns on. If the room is empty for a certain amount of time it turns off automatically. They billed this as an initiative to make the campus greener (which it does) but I bet it saves no small amount of money also, done campus-wide!
Auto-shutoff lights are the opposite of great in offices, especially those which are populated by graduate students sitting in chairs for extended periods of time. Nothing like suddenly sitting in the dark!

Nevertheless, in North America we certainly don't have as many auto-shutoffs as in Europe, where apartment buildign corridors are even often unlit.
So what's the big deal about having to stand up and wave your arms around once in a while to make the lights go back on? (Assuming you are typically able-bodied, of course.)
In 2001-2002, the CC I worked at went through some changes because of spiking power costs. (What they are doing NOW, I've no idea!)

* Closing everything on Friday afternoons in the summer. (So popular, it became a permanent feature of summer scheduling.)

* Reducing lighting. It got a little weird/dim in our office, but as it turned out it was sort of cozy with the lower light.

* Choosing not to re-open a pool that had been closed for other reasons. Someone told me that it accounted for something like a quarter of the school's heating costs.

I know there was other stuff, but the particulars escape me now. I'm sure it's painful to find money for an environmental assessment, but it's possible it'll pay for itself.

I'm quite sympathetic, having worked in a building where the heating and cooling couldn't have been fixed without tearing apart concrete walls & pillars. You KNOW it's wasting money if you need a coat in the summer (and a tank top in the winter!) to cope with the climate control system.
In my building we routinely have the windows open (or the window a/c units turned on) most of the winter because otherwise the radiators cause it to be over 90F inside.
Apropos of both this and the "annual crisis" issue, a parable of sorts.

Big Texas High School (BTHS) was facing a funding crisis. Millage failed, cossts increased, etc. What to cut? They already had parents paying extra to participate in Band, clubs, etc. There just wasn't enough money to go around. Oddly enough, during the school year everyting was fine until the Boosters Club met in March to plan next year's Football budget only to find the cupboard was bare.

But only for about a day!

(p.s. if you don't think this strategy would work for you, think again. In the federal government, on military installations, commanders will cut the base hospital funds first. That hits the retirees hard and early. They have their elected representatives on speed dial.)

The Moral Of The Story: Every Publicly Funded Organization Has A Football Team.

The trick is finding out just exactly what your "Football Team" is.
You're a nonprofit and a great cause; any way you can get an energy audit donated or given at a discount?
One solution is to have hybrid classes: students attend one or two days of actual class and then have one or two days of online activities. This may decrease the need and/or demand for Sat. classes...you could also just move to Wyoming. We're doing fine.
Just got a note today from a local college which saved $70K over the previous year by consolidating scheduling into certain buildings, so enabling the shut down of other buildings which had historically been open for just a couple of classes on the weekends.
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