Oklahoma's top higher education official said he's optimistic about a plan that would require energy cost cutting at state agencies, including public colleges and universities.
Glen Johnson, chancellor of the Oklahoma System of Higher Education, said the Oklahoma State Facilities Energy Conservation program will give the system a plan to build on past successes to further cut its energy bill.
Gov. Mary Fallin created the program Tuesday when she signed Senate Bill 1096 into law. It directs all state agencies and higher education institutions to cut their energy costs by at least 20 percent by the year 2020. The measure, which Fallin estimates could save the state up to $500 million over 10 years, takes effect in August.
Johnson said he'd been discussing the idea of an energy conservation program with Fallin since last fall.
“We have been on board from the beginning with the governor,” he said.
In a Jan. 9 letter to the Oklahoma Regents for Higher Education and presidents of Oklahoma's public colleges and universities, Fallin asked all public colleges and universities statewide to implement energy usage plans similar to one in effect since 2007 at Oklahoma State University.
In the letter, Fallin says higher education “accounts for the largest energy consumption in the state,” meaning colleges and universities have a major role to play in cost-cutting efforts.
OSU officials say the university has saved about $19 million since implementing its plan, developed the plan in partnership with the Dallas-based firm Energy Education. Much of the savings has come from relatively simple changes such as shutting off lights and equipment at night.
Interest is growing
Just a day after the bill was signed into law, interest in energy efficiency in higher education seems to be growing. The University Sustainability Consortium of Central Oklahoma, a fledgling group of sustainability officers at colleges and universities in the Oklahoma City area, held its monthly meeting Wednesday. Attendance was sharply higher than at previous meetings, said Tim Tillman, sustainability coordinator at the University of Central Oklahoma.
Even before the bill became law, Tillman said, interest had grown. The consortium began late last year with sustainability officials from a handful of institutions meeting for coffee. Now, he said, the group is holding formal meetings and continues to grow.
With the new mandate on energy efficiency, colleges and universities are ramping up efforts that had already begun to pay dividends. Brian Ellis, director of facilities management at the University of Oklahoma, said OU began implementing a building efficiency project similar to OSU's in 2008.
That plan includes installing lower-wattage lightbulbs and transformers throughout campus, upgrading heating and air units to run more efficiently and installing automatic sensors that turn off lights when rooms aren't occupied.
Over the summer, OU officials plan to install more than 200 smart meters that will allow them to get useful data on how much energy each building uses. That information will allow the university to take steps to use energy more wisely, he said.
Keith Ogans, Rose State College's vice president for business affairs, said the college plans to bring in consultants in the upcoming fiscal year to develop behavioral changes that would cut costs.
“You can really achieve significant savings through behavior modification,” he said.
Johnson said the higher education system has seen about $43.6 million in actual and projected utility cost savings since 2009. While finding other ways to cut costs will be challenging, it's also an important goal, he said.
“We're on board completely,” he said.