How Low Can He Go: Saving Campus Millions in Energy Costs

Jim Almashy cares about kilowatts. He leaves the lights off in his office and keeps his computer and phone plugged into a motion-detecting power strip. But his concerns extend beyond his office at University of Michigan's College of Literature, Science, and Arts Building on State Street in Ann Arbor, Mich.

As Energy Conservation Engineer for LSA, U-M’s largest college, Almashy monitors about 4 million square feet in 35 buildings for energy savings. A 35-year employee with extensive knowledge of the university’s plant operations, Almashy joined LSA in 2007. Since then he has helped the college avoid millions of dollars in energy costs.

In 2010 alone, LSA avoided $3.6 million in energy costs from the previous year; decreased overall energy usage by 26 percent; and decreased steam usage by 35 percent. That’s enough to power, heat and cool 2,048 average U.S. households for a year. The reduction in carbon emissions is equivalent to taking 2,472 cars off of the nation’s roads.

“When I started, I was sure I would save the college at least my salary,” Almashy said. “After I was in the position for a little while, I realized I could save the college the equivalent of my salary every week, at least for the first few years.”

Almashy’s job in LSA is part of the university’s larger cost-cutting efforts to ensure the primary mission of providing a world-class education. The university has already reduced or reallocated more than $135 million in recurring costs and is in the process of reducing spending by another $100 million by 2012. It’s planning on reducing and reallocating an additional $120 million by 2017. That cost saving is happening through a variety of measures, including energy cost avoidance.

Last year, U-M realized a $5.2 million utility cost avoidance through its Planet Blue energy-saving program. The program has reduced overall energy use by 14 percent. U-M is reducing its carbon footprint and reducing costs through initiatives ranging from green purchasing and sustainable construction practices to creating Almashy’s position.

Almashy is believed to be U-M’s first energy conservation engineer dedicated to a single college. U-M’s hospital complex recently appointed Christopher Victory for a similar position, as senior mechanical engineer.

Almashy saves energy by paying attention to large ventilation systems and numerous details. He scrutinizes ventilation fan schedules, watches for spikes in utility bills and turns off lights.

In several of LSA’s older buildings, he’s found it is cheaper to rent temporary cooling systems than to use the systems installed in the buildings. In the Angell Hall Computing Center, he turned off 100 250-watt lights that were highlighting a skylight 24 hours a day and waited to see if anyone complained.

No one did.

He’s replaced high wattage light bulbs with lower wattage bulbs that produce equivalent luminescence, or removed one of the tubes in three-tube florescent light fixtures. In most cases ventilation fans run only when buildings are occupied.

“The university has continually been doing things to save costs,” Almashy said. “This is just one way we can ensure continued savings. It’s really pretty simple. Everybody can play a part. It’s not rocket science. You don’t have to be an engineer. Just turn it off.”

Robert Johnston, LSA’s director of facilities and operations, said Almashy has made a historic difference in the way the college functions.

“Jim’s expertise and hard work has turned around LSA's historical rise in energy use to where now it is in steady decline,” Johnston said. “These savings have also resulted in the reduction of the environmental impact of LSA’s energy use. His exceptional knowledge of building systems, along with his intimate knowledge of the university’s maintenance and engineering resources, has allowed him to implement changes to LSA building systems and their operations.”

Johnston said Almashy’s ability to educate people about energy conservation has also been a great asset.

“Most of these changes have been transparent to LSA faculty, staff and students,” Johnston said. “When the cooperation of the building occupants was needed, Jim’s diplomatic and responsive manner ensured that we gained their support. “

Posted by Maryanne George, Katie Merx Sarver on May 09, 2011