Higher Education’s Tug-of-War: Energy Efficiency vs. Space Growth

This post is based on research from “State of Sustainability in Higher Education 2017: Trends in Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation,” a report from Sightlines and the University of New Hampshire (UNH) available for download Feb. 28. Register for our free webinar on Feb. 27 for an exclusive look at the complete findings.

In the past decade, the higher education sector has invested a great deal of attention into improving energy efficiency, and the pay-off is evident. Across the Sightlines database, fossil fuel consumption per square foot in 2016 fell by 15 percent from 2007 baseline. Electric consumption per square foot saw a more modest decrease of three percent in the same period.

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The disparity in fossil versus electric efficiency improvement is likely related to shifting standards for facility amenities. Recent technological advances have affected electricity consumption while leaving fossil consumption relatively untouched. For example, many building occupants now expect central cooling as a standard. Plug loads are also growing as facilities must support ever more plug-in appliances and personal devices.

As colleges and universities strive toward further improvements in energy efficiency, they may face larger hurdles in reducing electric use than fossil. Nevertheless, each square foot of space in higher education today is consuming less energy, on average, than it did in 2007 – a major sustainability feat.

The battle between efficiency and growth

Progress in energy efficiency, however, runs counter to another trend in higher education: widespread campus space growth. Eight in 10 campuses in the Sightlines database now support more square footage than in 2007, and Sightlines and UNH find that, in many cases, overall energy usage at these campuses grew as well. Nearly half (46 percent) of campuses that saw space growth now consume an equal or greater amount of total fossil fuel than in 2007. Over half (56 percent) consume an equal or greater amount of total electricity. This is a troubling signal that the addition of new space is counteracting hard-earned energy efficiency wins on many campuses.

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As institutions attempt to make headway toward their sustainability goals, it is important to keep this tug-of-war between space growth and energy efficiency in mind. Limiting overall energy usage is essential to reducing campus carbon footprints because every additional unit of energy consumed has a climate impact. Despite improved emissions efficiency per square foot, institutions will find it difficult to manage their emissions profiles without addressing growth of total campus space.

Moving toward the right sizeHigher Education's Tug-of-War: Energy Efficiency vs. Space Growth 3

To avoid taking two steps forward and one step back, institutions should focus on sustainable space management.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach. For some campuses, this may involve downsizing existing campus space or adopting a net zero space growth policy. Other institutions may need a greater amount of space per student to fulfill institution-specific goals. Finally, institutions bucking the sector-wide trend of stagnating enrollment will likely require new space to keep pace with a growing student body. At its core, sustainable space management is about identifying how much space is necessary to fulfill an institution’s mission and then rightsizing campus accordingly. In the long run, this will help integrate energy and sustainability priorities with other considerations vital to the institution, such as operational and financial health.

How can space-rich institutions begin to right-size campus and reap the resulting benefits in lower energy consumption? Sightlines and UNH offer the following four suggestions:

  • Conduct regular space utilization analyses and set standards of occupancy
  • Target buildings with high levels of deferred maintenance for demolition and consolidate functions into currently under-utilized space
  • Communicate the environmental and financial costs of constructing new space or leaving under-utilized space online, and employ regimes to allocate those costs to users
  • Consider pedagogical approaches that enable teaching more students with less space