Campus & Community

Papers, workshops, tours light up energy meeting

6 min read

Harvard is already famous for its experts in languages, law, medicine, government, and literature. Now you can add heating and cooling.

The University last week played host to a Feb. 11-15 annual meeting of experts in how colleges handle “district energy.” That’s a phrase used in the facilities operations industry for distribution systems that generate steam, chilled water, and hot water at a central plant. These centralized energy systems eliminate the need for each building to have its own boilers, air conditioners, and other gear. That saves on capital costs and energy use.

The Harvard-sponsored event, which took place at the InterContinental Boston hotel, drew 450 attendees from as far away as Korea. It was the 21st annual campus energy conference and was sponsored by the International District Energy Association (IDEA). Experts delivered 60 technical papers, and oversaw workshops on water hammer accidents, looped steam systems, resizing chilled water valves, and other esoterica of physical plant operations.

But the theme this year involved two ideas everyone understands — and which are increasingly at the top of to-do lists for university operations officials: clean energy and sustainable campuses.

“It’s a very positive message,” and universities at the cutting edge of energy-saving technologies can help, said conference host Robert Manning, engineering and utilities manager for Harvard’s University Operations Services. “The government is looking at a lot of ways to get to those ideas.”

The IDEA conference included a video appearance by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who singled out Harvard for its sustainability programs.

A conference of university experts is open and noncompetitive, said Manning — so it’s a good place to learn strategies for reducing energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions. “These are people who do what we do” and who struggle with the same problems, he said. “We all share ideas.”

Administrators who run U.S. universities are becoming increasingly aware of the environmental impacts buildings have. (On a typical campus, structures account for 90 percent of energy usage and emissions.)

Energy is an especially critical issue in science buildings, where laboratories may consume three to four times the energy of ordinary campus structures. (One laboratory fume hood, while open, uses as much energy as the average New England house.)

So innovation is important to keep campuses both in the black and in the green. “It is clear that … conventional approaches to energy use and production are simply not sustainable,” said Thomas Vautin, Harvard’s vice president for Facilities and Environmental Services. He addressed a campus energy symposium on Feb. 13, midway through the IDEA event.

Vautin called Harvard’s sustainability principles, adopted in 2004, “a high-level road map” for building design and construction. Over time, he said, Harvard will apply the same principles to 9 million square feet of new construction in Allston.

Conferences like this help create standards of practice, said attendee Peter Cooper, who directs sustainable engineering and utility planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “Some of [the information we need is] in papers,” he said of the learning curve, “and some of it’s in corridors in between [technical sessions].” (MIT popped up as an example in a presentation on large-scale solar arrays. This year it will install 1,000 square meters of solar cells at new graduate student housing on Albany Street.)

At IDEA’s annual college-section meetings, added Cooper, host universities “get to show off their stuff.”

For Harvard, the showing off came on the final day of the conference, when attendees were bused around to three campus sites. One was 46 Blackstone St., where three connected buildings have been renovated to strict sustainability standards. The site uses geothermal cooling from wells 1,500 feet deep, ventilates only with fresh air, and during the summer is 40 percent more energy-efficient than code.

“People [at the conference] just want to see how you do it,” said Mary H. Smith, Harvard’s manager of Energy Supply and Utility Administration, who has an office at Blackstone. “Harvard has a lead in sustainability. People look to us.”

A second tour stop was the adjoining Blackstone Steam Plant, which heats about 80 percent of Harvard’s buildings in Cambridge and Allston. Replacing a 1930 boiler reduced air emissions there by more than 90 percent, and overall campus emissions by 15 percent. The plant’s new backpressure turbine is also a source of nearly free electrical power.

The third tour stop at Harvard was the Northwest Chilled Water Plant, a new operation deep beneath the new Northwest Science Building on Oxford Street. (Occupants will start moving into the building in May.)

The chilled water plant uses several miles of 20-inch pipe to distribute 42-degree water. It’s part of a two-site system that cools 5 million square feet in 75 Harvard buildings. (The other chilled water plant, commissioned over 35 years ago, is in the Science Building.) At peak summer usage, the tandem system — reliable, redundant, efficient, and centrally controlled — can supply 18,000 tons of chilled water per hour.

Chilled water plants are normally built above ground, but Harvard had to add capacity on a campus where real estate is hard to come by. “Space is truly at a premium here,” said Harvard senior engineer Susyrati Bunanta.

To make future machine installations possible, there are massive concrete hatches buried beneath landscaping near Oxford Street. The only street-level sign of a chilled water plant is hard to see: eight cooling towers, masked by red brick on the lab’s roof.

“It’s a chiller plant in a very difficult situation,” said Cooper, who donned a hard hat and yellow vest to take one of the Feb. 15 morning tours. “In terms of construction engineering, it’s interesting to see.”

Manning and Bunanta led the tours of the chilled water plant, situated 67 feet underground. Groundwater, bubbling underneath at up to 100 gallons per minute, is captured for landscape irrigation.

At the end of 11 flights of concrete stairs downward, past one level with a new 14-megawatt electrical substation, three 2,500-ton chillers loom within 20,000 square feet of bright space. Next to them are two 1,500-ton heat exchangers. The floors are polished concrete. Pipes the size of airplanes gleam overhead. There’s the hum of big machines and the smell of new paint.

In the basement vastness, there’s room for two more chillers, which will be needed to serve any new buildings. Meanwhile, the new chiller plant adds the most efficiency at the least environmental cost, said Douglas C. Garron, director of engineering and utilities at Harvard. “It is, in a very responsible way, responding to the expansion on campus.”

On the last day of the IDEA conference, Cooper stood to the side at the Northwest Science construction site. Nearby, a crane poked into the sky, trucks ground along dirt access roads, and workers moved around deliberately.

Universities — many of them the size of small cities — are struggling to find ways to reduce their environmental footprint, said Cooper. “They turn to people like us to find out how much things are going to cost.”