UM-Dearborn charges ahead on energy efficiency projects

December 8, 2021

The campus is moving quickly to implement improvements to lighting and building systems that will help us meet our carbon neutrality goals, with even bigger projects on the horizon.

Students use smartphone apps to check classroom lighting levels during the 2020 DTE E-Challenge. The project resulted in a comprehensive energy savings plan for campus, which is now in the implementation phase.

One of the central challenges in the fight to contain climate change is that it won’t be done with one or two big ideas but with hundreds of little changes to the way we live. Laying out what those changes will be is time-consuming in itself, and given the financial resources we’ll need to devote to the cause, it’s important to have a solid plan that makes every dollar count. Viewed this way, UM-Dearborn is already off to a great start as it moves toward meeting the new carbon neutrality goals of the U-M system. In particular, the 2020 DTE E-Challenge, in which a 53-member campus team put together a comprehensive energy savings strategy for UM-Dearborn, yielded a plan for dozens of projects that have been researched, have budgets and are “shelf ready” as funding becomes available. It’s like having a game plan for tackling our carbon problem on campus — or at least a playbook for the first quarter.

Over the past year, campus facilities staff, including students working on a new Strategic Energy Management (SEM) team, have already completed a number of these energy-saving projects. For example, Director of Plant Operations Jerry Van Couwenberghe explained that much of the heat for the main campus comes from natural gas-powered steam boilers, and by better matching the system’s hot water temperatures to outside air temperatures, you can save a lot of energy. “We call it a hot water reset,” Van Couwenberghe says. “If it’s, say, 40 degrees outside, you really don’t need 180-degree water to heat the building, you might only need 120-degree water. And we did a similar reset for ‘chilled water,’ which we use for cooling.” Similarly, they found that by tweaking building thermostat schedules to, say, start heating spaces to occupancy temperatures at 6 a.m. rather than 5 a.m., they can save energy without sacrificing comfort. “In the facilities world, they call this building analytics,” says Plant Operations Manager Scott Kiroff. “At that point, you’re really diving into the nitty gritty — but the nitty gritty is huge. An hour here, an hour there, add that up over a five-day work week, then apply that to multiple buildings, and that’s a lot of energy saved.”

The teams have been busy over at the Fairlane Center campus too. There, they’ve installed sensors for CO2, an output of human respiration, to help regulate the amount of outside air used in the HVAC system. If the building senses less CO2 (i.e. less people), it’ll decrease the amount of fresh air it’s bringing into buildings. And because outside air requires heating or cooling before it enters the occupied parts of buildings, this CO2-sensing system can save a lot of energy. Similarly, they’re taking advantage of the fact that Fairlane Center uses heat pumps to provide individualized heating and cooling to each room. By integrating occupancy sensors into the system, they can now automatically turn down thermostats when no one is using a space.

Another big project: A lighting audit of 14 of the largest campus buildings. Energy Manager Sumit Ray has been coordinating that with Kiroff and the students on the SEM team, and they’re now set to move on lighting updates in five buildings with the help of $280,000 in new funding from the Ann Arbor campus. The Mardigian Library is first on the list, where occupancy-based lighting in the stacks and daylight compensating bulbs near windows will yield enough energy savings to pay for the entire project in just 18 months.

Having chipped away at a lot of energy efficiency measures, which reduce our carbon footprint by using less, Ray, Kiroff and Van Couwenberghe say the facilities teams are beginning to plan projects that could address our remaining carbon footprint. One of the most exciting is a potential retrofit of Fairlane’s existing heat pump system to run on geothermal energy. Right now, the system is powered by natural gas, but by switching it over to an electricity-based geothermal system, we could sharply reduce the carbon footprint of the entire Fairlane campus. Ray is currently working on a design and budget for the project, which would likely involve drilling dozens of geothermal wells in the Fairlane Center parking lot to harness the constant 55-degree temperature of the Earth.

“Something like that obviously requires a big capital investment,” says Van Couwenberghe. “But we want to have these things planned and ready to bid out when the funds become available. The carbon neutrality goal gives us a different way of thinking about ‘going green,’ but the truth is we’ve always been very energy conscious on this campus, whether it’s tweaking a thermostat setting or designing a new building.”

That mindset is no doubt a big reason why UM-Dearborn has been able to move forward on so many energy-saving projects — and why we’re ready to roll on many more.


Story by Lou Blouin. Want to learn more about how the UM-Dearborn community is working to save energy? Check out our recent story about how a multidisciplinary team of researchers plans to eke even more energy savings out of our brand new ELB — a LEED Gold certified green building.