Awareness is Key to Campus Energy Savings

By Daniel Perez

UTEP News Service

A small cadre of UTEP employees prowled through the University on an overnight assignment last December as part of an effort to lower the campus’ carbon footprint. The results showed the savings could be significant if everyone does their part.

Jorge Villalobos, Ph.D., director of Facilities Services, said The University of Texas at El Paso could save approximately $500,000 annually – possibly more – if students, faculty and staff followed their parents’ advice and turned off lights in areas that are not being used and put their computers to “sleep” at day’s end.  Part of the team leading the campus energy savings push includes, from left, Jenny Fraire-Varela, assistant director of business operations; Jorge Villalobos, Ph.D., director of Facilities Services; and Carlo Hernandez Vazquez, Jesus Licona and Luis Morales, assistant directors of research support, custodial and grounds, and maintenance, respectively. Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP News ServicePart of the team leading the campus energy savings push includes, from left, Jenny Fraire-Varela, assistant director of business operations; Jorge Villalobos, Ph.D., director of Facilities Services; and Carlo Hernandez Vazquez, Jesus Licona and Luis Morales, assistant directors of research support, custodial and grounds, and maintenance, respectively. Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP News Service

The University already has instituted several cost-saving measures using a centralized computer, but the next phase depends on human accountability.

 “This is a call to action,” Villalobos said as he showed slides of the projected impact from going greener. “Just this could lead to savings that are pretty significant.”

Much of the data was gathered after dark on Dec. 18 – a Tuesday during winter break – when about 25 University electricians, custodians, and members of operational support went through the campus to shut down computers, lights and thermostats.

The experiment’s results went beyond the projected savings on the UTEP power grid, said Carlo E. Vázquez Hernández, assistant director for research support and operations in Facilities Services. The former director of maintenance at the University of Monterrey was hired in 2011 in part because of his experience helping companies such as CEMEX and Ternium improve their “power quality” while reducing energy consumption.

Vázquez, a UTEP Accelerated MBA student, began to research campus energy use about 18 months ago and estimated the amount of energy that could be conserved without compromising campus safety or customer satisfaction. 

“We anticipated 40 percent savings, but we achieved 60 percent. It was amazing. I still think there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit that we can achieve with minimal investment.” Vázquez said, referring to easily attainable results.

The first step happened in February when a centralized computer lowered campus thermostats in non-research buildings from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. This saved the University $100,000 in three months. The next step was taken in March when Technology Support turned off computers in the campus’ main student-shared computer labs, which include about 1,100 computers, and more than 100 computers in “smart” classrooms. This is expected to save the University approximately $76,000 annually.

The next project will be to conserve power in the offices, said Frank Poblano, director of Technology Support. It could be as simple as turning off the monitor or putting the computer to “sleep” at the end of the workday and turning it off on weekends.

“We’re still researching our options,” Poblano said.

Cynthia “Cindy” Vizcaino Villa, UTEP’s vice president for business affairs, praised those involved for professionalizing the operation and changing the focus of the job from providing utilities to studying data, monitoring the systems, and managing the equipment efficiently to optimize cost savings that can be used to continue the core mission of serving students.

“They are doing an outstanding job,” Villa said. “They have taken to heart that we are under financial constraints.”

But they can’t do it all on their own, she said, adding that each person on campus must take responsibility to maximize the level of success. Villa asked everyone to do their part, such as turning off light switches and putting their computers to “sleep” at the end of the work day.

On another front, Tech Support’s Poblano said his office began in March an energy-saving effort using “thin client” computing systems, an alternative to traditional desktop PCs. Thin client devices use about 30 watts on average compared to 250 watts with a regular computer – an energy savings of about 85 percent. He placed several at computer labs in the University Library and the Education, Liberal Arts, Business Administration, and Chemistry and Computer Sciences buildings.

So far, students have not noticed a difference, but with each passing day and with each new effort, the accountants do.