Northwestern Sees the Light And It’s Green

Northwestern University is among the nation's top academic institutions with more than 21,000 students and more than 7,000 faculty and staff. Sustainability is a core value in the University's teaching and research, as well as in campus operations.

The University advances sustainability education and research through programs such as the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern, Argonne-Northwestern Solar Energy Research Center, the Solar Fuels Institute, and the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research.

In terms of facilities and operations, energy use accounts for a majority of Northwestern’s environmental footprint, and reducing this impact is a top priority. Strategies for reducing the environmental impact of energy use on campus include implementing energy efficiency upgrades in existing facilities, achieving green building certification in new construction, and purchasing electricity from renewable sources. In addition, the University is partnering with the ENERGY STAR® program to achieve its energy efficiency goals. As an ENERGY STAR partner, Northwestern is committed to reducing its energy use intensity by 20 percent across its portfolio of classroom, lab, residential, and administrative space by 2020.

Partnering with ENERGY STAR

Northwestern values partnerships as a way to promote energy conservation and sustainable practices in both the local community and through knowledge sharing with peers. Northwestern relies on its partnership with the ENERGY STAR program and the ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager tool to identify energy saving opportunities and to track successes in reducing energy usage. ENERGY STAR is a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) voluntary program that helps businesses and individuals save money and protect our climate through superior energy efficiency. ENERGY STAR identifies and promotes energy efficient products, homes, and buildings.

The program also offers tools and information that enable greater energy efficiency. Northwestern uses one of these tools, ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager, to track energy and water consumption in campus buildings. The University uses this data to set goals for reducing use and to track progress toward those goals.

Northwestern also uses Portfolio Manager to facilitate participation in local and national initiatives such as the City of Chicago’s Energy Benchmarking Ordinance, the Retrofit Chicago Commercial Building Initiative, President Obama’s Higher Education Climate Change Initiative, and the Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Challenge.

In addition, Northwestern capitalizes on the ENERGY STAR label to help identify best-in-class products for energy efficiency. The University looks for products with ENERGY STAR certification for both new construction and upgrades in existing buildings.

Achieving Energy Efficiency

When improving facilities or planning for new construction, energy efficiency is a key consideration. Since 2010, Northwestern has invested more than $32 million in energy efficiency projects, resulting in a total saving of 146,288,182 kBtu. The energy savings resulted in six year payback time had a direct impact on the organization’s greenhouse gas emissions and its bottom line.

Some of the lowest hanging fruit are lighting improvements, providing environmental and economic benefits while improving lighting quality for building occupants. Starting in 2009, Northwestern has been upgrading lighting in campus buildings, including replacing T12 florescent fixtures with more energy efficient T8 and LED fixtures.

LED lighting is now specified for all construction and renovation jobs. While LED fixtures and bulbs may cost more up front, they offer considerable energy and operational savings. ENERGY STAR qualified LEDs use less than a quarter of the energy used by traditional incandescent bulbs and last up to 25 times longer. This leads to significant time and cost savings for the Facilities Management electricians and custodial staff who have to replace and recycle spent lamps.

Controls, in addition to efficient fixtures, are a critical part of an energy efficient lighting system. In the University’s new Segal Visitors Center and portions of the North Campus Parking structure, LEDs, daylight sensors, dimming controls, and motion sensors are combined on a central system for optimal performance and safety. These systems ensure that spaces are lit safely when needed and that energy is conserved when daylight is available and areas are unoccupied. These technologies save an estimated 290,000 kilowatt-hours annually in the North Campus Garage. LED lighting also provides excellent color rendition and is more compatible with security imaging equipment, making it easier to keep parking structure occupants safe.

Going for the Gold

When it comes to new construction, Northwestern is setting high standards for sustainability. The University plans to build on its portfolio of projects that have been recognized by the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program. This rating system recognizes buildings that meet high standards for sustainability. Northwestern’s LEED certified buildings include eight LEED Gold projects and two LEED Silver projects. The University is pursuing certification for eight additional LEED registered projects that are currently in design and construction.

One of the newest LEED certified buildings is the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Center for the Musical Arts on the University’s Evanston Campus, which received LEED Gold certification in October, 2015. The Ryan Center is a sleek glass-encased 155,000-square-foot building. It is the new home of the Henry and Leigh Bienen School of Music. The contemporary limestone and glass five-story structure includes three state-of-the-art performance spaces, classroom space, 99 soundproof practice rooms, 66 faculty teaching studios or offices, and additional office space for staff and administrators. The center’s fifth floor houses School of Communication administrative offices.

The Ryan Center’s sustainable and energy-efficient features are numerous. Notably, significant portions of the building have a double-skin facade which provides acoustical isolation and greatly improves the thermal performance of the façade. High-efficiency and low-flow water fixtures, highly reflective roofing material to reduce the heat island effect, and energy-efficient lighting also contribute to the facility’s energy efficiency goals.

Investing in Renewable Energy

In October 2015, the U.S. EPA recognized Northwestern’s commitment to taking action on energy and climate by presenting the University with a Green Power Leadership Award. The award recognizes the country’s leading green power users for their commitment and contributions to helping advance the development of the nation’s voluntary green power market.

In addition to pursuing energy efficiency, in November 2015 Northwestern University joined more than 200 other colleges and universities in signing the American Campuses Act on Climate Pledge. The pledge demonstrates the University’s support for strong action on climate change and its commitment to reducing its own impact on the climate. In taking the pledge, Northwestern committed to launching a solar roof initiative that will involve installing a minimum of one new solar array in our portfolio each year.

Northwestern has been investing in clean, renewable energy since 2006. Purchasing Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) helps accelerate the development of new renewable energy capacity nationwide by providing a revenue stream for developers of wind and solar projects. In 2014, Northwestern increased its investment to an equivalent of 50 percent of the university’s annual electricity usage. According to the U.S. EPA, Northwestern’s current support of more than 122 million kWh of green power is equivalent to the electricity use of nearly 12,000 average American homes each year. Together, these strategies are helping to create a more energy efficient, sustainable university community. Northwestern plans to continue to build on its sustainability achievements in the years to come.

About the Author
Stephanie Folk is the Sustainability Communications Manager at Northwestern University. Folk is a communications professional with more than 12 years of experience working for nonprofit organizations. Areas of interest include natural resources, energy efficiency, health, and the arts.