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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Conservation or efficiency?
January 8, 2009 - 3:42pm

I was in the dentist's office, waiting to get my teeth cleaned. The remarkable thing about this situation was that most of the magazines in the waiting room were actually current issues. I picked up the copy of Time, since it had a cover story on energy efficiency. (I didn't get a chance to finish the story, so I still don't know how it comes out.)

One of the key points the article made was that energy efficiency isn't the same thing as energy conservation. Conservation is about using less energy with the equipment you already have -- turning down the furnace and putting on a sweater, for example. Efficiency, on the other hand, is about making sure you've got the right furnace, and the right sweater, and the right windows and insulation and fuel source.

Energy conservation never really caught on in the USA. If you're old enough, you might remember that Jimmy Carter wore sweaters inside the White House -- it's memorable because it's the exceptional case. Energy efficiency, however, has become pretty much mainstream. If you go out to buy a furnace or a water heater, energy efficiency is the main selling point. If you purchase a refrigerator or a dishwasher, energy efficiency information is prominently displayed -- you might make your selection based on features or color, but you'll know the likely costs you're incurring as a result. See, in the commercial marketplace, energy efficiency is a winner because companies have figured out how to make a dollar off it, and conservation is a loser because nobody can.

Curiously enough, the situation is reversed on campus. At least at Greenback, we're having a good deal of progress getting people to conserve energy, but energy efficiency is a hard sell. The reason seems to be that conservation efforts are individual and (at least in dollar costs) free, while efficiency improvements are institutional and cost money. And Greenback isn't set up administratively to save money.

I mentioned in an earlier post that building construction on our campus often cuts corners (I'm sorry, I mean "value engineers") when it comes to energy efficiency. Our capital budgeting process concentrates on minimizing capital costs in the short term, not total building costs over the useful lifespan. If we can build it $100K cheaper, we're quite likely to do that, even if it means that energy costs to operate the damn thing will go up by $25K per year and we're planning on operating it for 30 or 40 years before major renovation.

Well, the same kind of effect is in play at a much smaller scale as well. If the Philosophy department occupies space which is lit inefficiently, and they want to get more efficient lights installed before the next planned renovation (perhaps decades away), they have to pay for the building improvement out of departmental funds. The savings which result from decreased electrical costs due to the more efficient lighting, however, don't go back to the Philosophy department -- they go to Building Operations and Maintenance (Physical Plant).

So, if I'm the Philosophy department chair, what's my motivation to pay for the lighting upgrade? Will I pay to assuage my personal sense of guilt at wasting electricity even though my department has many other unmet needs? And if I do, how do I explain to my faculty just where the money to pay for their raises or their conference travel went?

When we design administrative ( e.g., budgeting) systems which emphasize local (rather than global) optimization, we shouldn't be surprised at the results. Even when those results seem diametrically opposed to what the rest of society is doing. And to common sense.


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