College energy crisis

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September 18, 2007

2:46 AM

No one is happy about the College’s budget crisis. The governor demanded the College cut seven percent of the state portion of its budget, or $3.4 million, annually. Recently, I heard a professor in the English department mention one of the first and most potentially damaging effects of these cuts: a temporary freeze on all new hires.

p. The financial ills of the English department are already serious and can only be compounded by cuts. One of the department’s most popular professors was denied a tenure-track position last spring, despite a petition from students pleading for her to be retained. The creative writing faculty, while talented, remains understaffed. And the unmistakable rank of sewage still floats daily through the classrooms in Tucker Hall.

p. My professor had the tact not to mention these things when he brought up the budget cuts. He only sighed in an implicit acknowledgment of the coming belt-tightening and the damage it can do; all departments are hurt by a hiring freeze. Then he walked over to the wall and adjusted the air conditioning. The classroom was already cool, though it was over 90 degrees outside. Soon it was colder. The students began to reflexively rub their arms and hunch their backs to keep warm. Several put on sweaters they kept in their bags for just such over-cooled classrooms. After class, everyone left with the lights still on and the air conditioning still blasting.

p. There are similar scenes all across campus: we bemoan the budget cuts as we overuse and abuse the energy it takes to run campus. Last year, we spent $6.5 million powering the College. A study available on Greeningwm.com shows that, per person, our campus produces more carbon dioxide (and thus consume more energy) than the average American, and three times as much as the average German. It estimates that our little university produces more carbon dioxide than the entire country of Chad, which has a population just over ten million. We are truly America’s “hottest small state school.”

p. We have two choices. We can continue to do nothing about our rampant energy use, allowing budget cuts to deteriorate the College’s academics in the same way that our carbon dioxide emissions deteriorate the fragile beauty of the Virginia landscape. Or we can seize this as an opportunity. By slowing energy usage across campus, we reduce both expenses and carbon emissions, thus preserving our academics as well as our environment.
The Student Environmental Action Coalition describes what they call the “low-hanging fruit” of energy efficiency at the College.

p. These initiatives would be relatively cheap and easy and would yield significant short-term savings. Many of them address the “hotel mentality” so many of us harbor — that the reason we refrigerate massive academic buildings, leave lights on in empty classrooms and leave computers humming after-hours in locked labs is because we, as individuals, are not personally responsible for paying the bill. Meanwhile, our energy spending is through the roof and we cannot afford to tenure some of our most talented professors.

p. Or we could install motion sensors that turn off lights when classrooms are empty. Computers could be set to go to “sleep” mode when not in use. SEAC has particularly stressed installing energy meters in every campus building, thus allowing the College to track which have adopted the most effective energy-saving practices. Students would be unlikely to be the focus — residence halls consume only a quarter of the energy on campus despite being the only buildings in continuous use. Professors and administrators, however, status-focused as they are, would surely bend to social pressure to not be the most wasteful. It would certainly be in their interest, given that it is their own salaries they could be saving.

p. A compact fluorescent bulb lending program, in which more efficient $2 bulbs are lent to stu-dents so to use in place of incandescent bulbs, is another sure way to save money. Each replaced bulb can save $10 in annual energy costs. Given the thousands of students living on campus, and that a compact fluorescent bulb lasts several years, this translates into tens of thousands of dollars in the first year and more in the following years. Enough to hire a new professor or retain an unaffordable one. Maybe two.

p. Perhaps the most lucrative improvement the College could make in energy efficiency would be to commission an Energy Service Corporation audit of the College’s energy use. The service is free and the auditors do all the work. (Auditors take a percentage of their client’s savings as their fee, though only for a couple of years.) A recent audit on William and Mary Hall reduced energy consumption by 40 percent, saving the College $200,000.

p. And that’s just one of the hundred or so buildings on campus. If we commission an ESCO audit of them all, this budget crisis might just be resolved. We could save our academic departments from damaging cuts or hiring freezes. And who knows ­­— we might even get to save our environment, too.

p. __Max Fisher is a senior at the College.__

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