A regular feature of this column will be interviews with energy leaders in our community. I can think of no better person to kick off the series than Chris Martin, Energy Management Director for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. UNC is the largest consumer of energy in the UNC system, but they have avoided more than $23 million in energy costs since 2009. Chris and I sat down to discuss his role, the university’s goals and his team’s achievements.

Facilities Dept. at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.Chris arrived at UNC 11 years ago from Montana, where he had been laid off in the economic downturn that followed 9/11. He had been trained as a mechanical engineer at North Carolina State University and decided to move his family to a place where they had some roots. He and his wife live in Durham and have three children, ranging in age from 6 to 11.

In his current role, Martin oversees energy conservation on 18.5 million built square feet, more than 300 buildings and 15 employees. He is co-chair of the Campus-Based Energy Efficiency Working Group of the UNC Energy Leadership Challenge, launched by UNC President Tom Ross, with a goal of saving the UNC system $1 billion over the next 20 years.

In 2012, UNC achieved the state-mandated goal of 30 percent reduction in energy use, three years ahead of schedule; the university achieved the 20 percent water reduction goal several years prior.

PrintHe would never say this, but many of the accolades UNC receives in the annual “best of” green school lists are a result of his team’s efforts. For instance, the university scored a 95 out of 99 in The Princeton Review’s Guide to Green Colleges: 2013 Edition. Scores were based on high performance infrastructure, advancement towards climate neutrality, and student engagement in green initiatives, and the Energy Management Department at UNC touches all three of those sectors.

Highlights of our conversation are below:

Dean: Tell us a bit about what your office does and your function here at UNC.

Martin: Our department was created from existing resources in Facilities. They took people who had significant interest and impact into energy consumption on campus and put them together to try to get a dedicated focus on energy conservation here at UNC.

We also have an organization on campus that manages our utility supply, generation and distribution. They manage our cogeneration plant, they manage our chilled water plants, they manage our electric distribution; all that supply side stuff. So our department is just on the load, or demand, side of building energy consumption. That is where our focus is and how to reduce that.

Dean: You recently announced a savings of $23.5 million from the energy conservation measures (ECM) you have implemented. What was the most successful ECM you have implemented, and how about the one with the most challenges?

Martin: That is a challenging question to answer, because the ECM program is really a continuous commissioning or recommissioning of buildings. But, as you know, we have computer control systems that manage our heating and cooling in our buildings. These allow us to see how a building is functioning, at that moment, from a centralized location. A majority of our 300-plus buildings have these controls. The systems of institutional buildings are an order of magnitude higher than what you have at home. That complexity requires some real diligence to how you program that system to run and a knowledge of the end goal of that system.

Obviously, that goal is to keep occupants comfortable, to keep the humidity within control so we don’t grow mold and to do those jobs very efficiently. So, the ECM, or recommissioning, program looks at our standards for existing buildings and implements those standards in buildings that have not been upgraded.

Most of the results of the ECM program have no impact on the occupants. It is behind the scenes, in the mechanical room, where we are not consuming as much energy to have the same results as we were before.

Now, you asked me what were the most difficult things. And, the two things we have implemented that do have an impact on occupants are temperature standards and some occupancy schedules. At times we shut buildings down or relax them. Maybe not cool them as much or heat them as much. We are trying to be sophisticated enough to know when those buildings are at maximum and minimum usage and take advantage of those minimum usage times to relax the building.

We have a commitment to the campus at-large as to what temperatures we are going to maintain. We use industry standards to set a level of expectation and a continued commitment to indoor air quality. Some of our systems are really old, and we have limitations in what those systems are capable of. However, to the greatest extent possible, we try to honor our temperature commitments so people know what to expect in our buildings. That being said, as we all know, we each have our own temperature where we are most comfortable. Some people like it really cold all the time and others like it really hot all the time. Unfortunately, the university really cannot afford to provide that degree of flexibility for the occupants so we must post some standards, which are also our performance guarantees, to the campus. That has been the most difficult thing to do.

Dean: I know in some buildings, for instance Morrison Hall, you have energy dashboards that provide real-time data on how that building is performing. Are those dashboards in place to help answer some of those questions users might have regarding the temperature?

Martin: Yes, that is the goal: to put real-time energy usage in front of the user to educate their behavior. On the backend we also use those systems to monitor how our adjustments are impacting the building. We don’t have to wait a month or two to find out if an adjustment was a positive or not. We can find out in 15 minutes.

Dean: Are the dashboards effective tools of behavior change for the occupants?

Martin: Yes, I believe so, but maybe not in the way that is commonly talked about. We find they increase awareness of what we are trying to do on campus which creates interest and support. And, to be successful we have to have a lot of support from the community. It just will not work without the community support. So, those dashboards really create those conversations.

Dean: You have also been very successful in your efforts to reduce water consumption on campus.

MechanicalRoomWorkatUNCMartin: Most of the water conservation that we’ve done is the result of the reclaimed water system on campus. Orange County Water and Sewer Authority (OWASA) partnered with UNC to partially treat wastewater and use it in non-drinking-water applications. Much of it is getting sent to our chilled water plants where a high percentage of our water usage is evaporated for heating and cooling our buildings. So, that effort has significantly reduced our portable water usage on campus and our Energy Services group pioneered that with OWASA.

Dean: What does success look like for you?

Martin: As a mechanical engineer, waste really irks me. So, success for us, and me personally, is increasing our team’s effectiveness in their area of influence so that we are truly not wasting any energy. It includes increasing our team’s performance, knowledge and expertise. Our team includes our occupants, the faculty, staff and students.

I think we can get tons of gain without ever really affecting the way people do their business on campus, and that is just by choosing to do things a little differently. I don’t think we have taken full advantage of that yet. I think we have a lot of opportunity to continue to save energy without really a lot of effort. How hard is it to turn off a light?

Probably the biggest opportunity, as far as the thing most lacking right now, is occupant awareness of what we are doing and what they can do. That is something I wish we could push further and be more broadly visible on, because it generates support and the conversations.