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The University's Southeast Steam Plant

The University produces 70 percent of its steam through burning natural gas and the remainder primarily by burning coal.

The heat is on

(And the U budget takes a hit)

By Rick Moore

November 22, 2005;
updated November 29, 2005

If you think your heating bill is frighteningly high this winter, just be glad you're not heating the University of Minnesota. With heating costs nationwide projected to increase by anywhere from one third to two thirds, we checked in with Jerome Malmquist, the director of energy management at the University, to see what the U is facing in the coming months.

Granted, heating just the University is akin to providing for a small town; the Twin Cities campus alone has 253 buildings and roughly 19 million square feet of "heatable" space. Which is precisely what makes the rising cost of fuel so chilling.

Energy conservation
at the U

The University has been focused on energy conservation efforts for decades, and since 1994 it has actually decreased overall consumption in British thermal units (Btu) and the number of Btu per square foot. Some specific energy conservation efforts have included:

* Commissioning--the real-time monitoring and adjustment of system performance to maintain an optimal building environment and energy efficiency

* Retrofitting the majority of the incandescent and other inefficient lighting systems on campus to flourescent and other more efficient lighting systems

* Installing Direct Digital Control (DDC) equipment for better control

* Scheduling equipment to turn off when a space is not in use

* Testing and replacing faulty steam traps

* Partnering with sustainability classes and the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group to conduct a campuswide conservation campaign

According to Malmquist, natural gas--the U's primary source of heat--cost about $6.25 per million British thermal units (Btu) last fiscal year. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, natural gas prices reached nearly $15 per million Btu.

"What the University is looking at, as far as open-market purchases, is [an increase of] 100 percent," he says. He adds that, on the Twin Cities campus alone, the U anticipates it will be at least $2 million over budget due to fuel prices in the current fiscal year. Fuel prices are also impacting the University through increasing electrical costs, as plants in the state burn an increasing amount of natural gas to produce electricity.

The University produces 70 percent of its steam through burning natural gas and the remainder primarily by burning coal. In the future, Malmquist hopes to burn oat hulls--a form of biomass--which he says could save the University between $3 million and $4.5 million a year. The U is currently waiting approval of a permit to burn oat hulls.

In the meantime, the University will continue its efforts to contain costs and promote energy efficiency (see sidebar). "We're doing everything we can to conserve energy," Malmquist says.

Editor's note: The U is seeking help from the state to cover its increased energy costs. A supplemental budget request, approved by the Board of Regents on November 10, seeks $6.3 million to cover cost increases through the current fiscal year, and $8.3 million recurring beginning in fiscal year 2007.