An engineering lab with computers and photovoltaic panels. 

Aug 31 2021

To Build Sustainable Campuses, Efficient Energy Management Is Critical

When universities and colleges must use a substantial amount of energy, automation is key to reducing waste.

There are several energy drainers on college campuses. Heating, cooling, ventilation, computing, water and lighting: It all adds up in expenses and carbon emissions.

This is one of the most pressing issues facing higher education today. For Generation Z, the fight against climate change is their No. 1 priority. If universities don’t take critical steps to reduce emissions, they could potentially see enrollment numbers decline. A recent survey by the Princeton Review found that 75 percent of prospective students say a school’s commitment to environmental sustainability would impact their decision to attend.

More than 400 universities and colleges have committed to significantly reducing carbon emissions, but only a handful can say they’ve reached carbon neutrality. That’s because energy consumption varies greatly depending on climate and location. It is much easier for smaller colleges in states such as Vermont, Maine and New York — all areas that benefit from below-average carbon intensity electric grids — to lower emissions, while medical schools and large universities with laboratories face an uphill battle.

To help higher education institutions with energy-intensive equipment reduce the environmental impact of their energy use, automation technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence and edge computing can use real-time data to help large campuses decrease energy consumption. Here’s how these solutions and strategies can improve energy monitoring systems in higher education.

How Much Energy Does a College Campus Use?

According to Energy Star, colleges and universities typically spend around $1.10 per square foot on electricity and 18 cents per square foot on natural gas. This translates to an average energy cost of approximately $100,000 per year for a 50,000-square-foot building.

When it comes to water, a Yale University analysis found its campus used an average of 814,295 cubic feet of water per year between 2003 and 2009.

Milad Korde, a visiting geographic information science assistant professor at Clark University and co-author of the recent report “Universities as Models of Sustainable Energy-Consuming Communities?” says costs vary depending on location. “Most energy is consumed to provide heating and cooling,” he says, “but this can vary according to microclimates. For example, in Texas, more energy is dedicated to cooling because there are more hot days than cold days.”

Korde also says universities and colleges must keep an eye on lighting systems. “Fluorescent lightbulbs are not energy efficient, but in aggregate, they rarely compete with cooling and heating,” he says.

MORE ON EDTECH: Technology may prove central to tackling climate change.

What Is Energy Management and How Does It Work?

Energy management is the practice of setting goals to reduce energy consumption, then monitoring energy usage to ensure universities are meeting their goals.

The approach will look different from state to state and town to town.

“Many universities try to abide by state bills and rules,” says Korde. “In other cases, even when there is no significant binding bill or federal or state law, the university is still a champion of energy management due to the decision-makers’ strong environmental attitude. In both cases, there is a need for all stakeholders to push for successful energy management.”

Energy management for universities should also center on setting very specific goals — such as how much to reduce, and by what year. “There are multiple ways of setting goals,” Korde says, “and there are key considerations that are applicable to everyone and in every context.”

Milad Korde
How we produce, distribute and consume energy can significantly change the trajectory of the deteriorating climate.”

Milad Korde visiting geographic information science assistant professor, Clark University

According to Korde, automation is one key strategy that can improve energy monitoring in most situations. “You can set the lighting system to go off if nobody is in the room,” he says. “Or you can program the AC based on the season, the day of the week and a room’s usage rate.”

Automation through IoT devices such as smart water sensors is an especially effective way to record water usage and detect leaks that lead to unnecessary water waste.

To optimize a building’s energy consumption in real-time, edge computing can also compile data around electricity and gas usage at a faster rate. Edge is also a key component to helping higher education institutions maximize AI-based energy monitoring.

RELATED: Georgia Tech researcher discusses how AI can improve student success. 

Why Should College Campuses Go Green?

Automation technologies can also help higher education institutions reduce energy costs. If colleges and universities can use edge computing and IoT monitoring to identify faulty pipes the moment they start leaking or turn off air conditioning when buildings are unoccupied, they will significantly decrease the amount they spend on energy over time.

The biggest benefit of green campuses is the mitigation of climate change. “This is the main concern for many scientists. How we produce, distribute and consume energy can significantly change the trajectory of the deteriorating climate,” Korde says. “If we can bring a sustainable energy approach to institutions and show the younger generation what is possible, we may reach more people on the importance of energy.”

What Are the Security Considerations for Green Campuses?

IoT monitoring can certainly provide granular visibility into energy usage across campuses, but it also introduces new security risks.

The biggest concern for IoT energy monitoring is the increase in endpoints and the large amount of data that the devices collect. Where will this data be stored and who will have access to these devices?

If malicious actors can compromise campus networks, they could change device settings to increase energy consumption or ignore energy issues, in turn costing schools time and money.

Ransomware is also a top concern. In March 2021, the FBI released an advisory warning that ransomware attacks on education networks are increasing. If attackers can encrypt key data and functions, they could deny staff access to facilities and critical data.

How can institutions effectively secure IoT deployment? It may help to look at other industries — such as health — where massive IoT adoption is currently taking place.

MORE ON EDTECH: A smart campus can reinvent the student experience.

“Implementing a management tool that lets IT teams know where each device exists, and can be uniquely and securely identified for reliable performance, is essential for successful IoT network operation,” Mike Tennefoss, vice president of IoT and strategic partnerships for Aruba Networks, tells HealthTech.

“Yet achieving this goal isn’t always easy. Teams may lack the skill sets necessary to identify system vulnerabilities,” Tennefoss says. “Weak points may include the lack of physical security for device electronics and interfaces, inadequate security for legacy IoT devices, use of default passwords, failure to validate the trustworthiness of newly connecting devices, using a BIOS from outside the U.S. and poor encryption key and certificate management.”

To adequately secure IoT deployments, Anthony Grieco, senior director of Cisco Systems’ security and trust organization, recommends prioritizing a strong security foundation. “Once you have this solid security foundation for remote management, the traditional systems that are used for remote management are going to have to be adjusted to focus on efficiency and the necessary scale of secure management,” he says.

For higher education IT teams with limited resources, it is worth considering hiring a security partner, such as CDW•G, who can offer a full-stack experience by assessing a university’s security posture and providing deployment support as well as ongoing threat analysis.

To effectively use IoT, AI or edge solutions to monitor energy consumption on campuses, Korde says, a cultural change must accompany digital transformation.

“The current tendency is to look at higher education schools as businesses with a traditional business model,” he says. “If we could change the role of the university to pioneers of environmental change through the involvement of its members, I believe we could reach better results.”

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