Kentucky's campus leaders are rushing to turn down their buildings' thermostats and urging students to switch off the lights in order to deflate bloating utility budgets that are adding to universities' budget woes.
At least two schools — the University of Kentucky and Western Kentucky University — are facing more than half-million dollar deficits in their utility budgets this year as rates for energy, water and sewer usage skyrocket.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
Widespread concern about energy bills, as well as the effect on the environment, has prompted campus facilities managers, administrators and student leaders to seek both common sense and creative solutions.
The urgency increased this week after Gov. Steve Beshear raised the prospect of mid-year budget cuts amid the tumbling economy.
WKU announced it would completely shut down for winter break after the Dec. 13 commencement ceremonies, extending by one week the number of days faculty and staff will be off campus for the break. The "hard shut down" as officials are calling it, means turning off water lines, unplugging just about everything, switching off circuit breakers and setting thermostats at 60 degrees in all but a couple buildings.
Campus officials hope it will save $80,000 in energy costs this winter and another $60,000 if replicated during the week between the spring and summer sessions.
Those are first steps toward erasing an expected $521,000 shortfall in WKU's energy budget, according to an e-mail announcing the shut down from university President Gary Ransdell.
Meanwhile, UK faces as much as a $1 million over-run on its $23 million utilities budget, said Bob Wiseman, vice president for facilities management.
"I'd like to see what I can do to reduce that overage ... by about a half-million dollars," Wiseman said. "One of the things we'd have to look at is that preset comfort range: instead of staying at 72 degrees, lowering it to 71 or whatever."
Another possibility is bumping back the time that heating systems kick in each winter morning to warm up buildings from their overnight temperatures, he said.
"Yeah, bring the sweaters and Monday mornings may be a tad cold," he said.
Utilities — electricity, coal for electricity generated on campuses, natural gas, water and even sewer usage — are slurping up more and more cash each year.
"The biggest impacts we've had this year are the coal impact and the natural gas prices," Wiseman said.
The university uses about 40,000 tons annually and had been paying about $90 per ton. The latest contract, signed within the last month, sets UK's cost at $147 per ton, Wiseman said.
UK also is facing big bumps in water and sewer bills before the fiscal year ends June 30.
Kentucky American Water has asked for a 30 percent rate increase that could take effect in May, and an expected increase in storm water sewer fees could add as much as $350,000 to UK's annual utility budget. That comes after last year's 48 percent increase in sanitary sewer fees.
Other schools, such as Morehead State University, say they expect to meet their utility budgets for the year.
But that doesn't mean they're not also scrambling to reduce usage.
In fact, most private and public colleges in Kentucky have boosted their emphasis on long-term environmental and energy conservation ideas and techniques.
"In the case of the lighting, we're reduced the kilowatt hours, but we've had rate increases," said Mike Walters, Morehead's vice president of administration and fiscal services. The energy savings have helped stabilize the university's $4 million utility budget, he said.
And Morehead is evaluating the pros and cons of completely shutting down the university between semesters as WKU is doing, he said.
WKU finalized the "hard shut down" idea through its new sustainability committee that convened last month.
Christian Ryan-Downing, who chairs that committee after being hired in May as WKU's sustainability outreach coordinator, said campuses are turning into breeding grounds for efficiency practices and ideas.
"We are looking at a more comprehensive approach," she said. "This would include how we use water on our campuses and some creative things like capturing rain water to be used for irrigation."
And seemingly small things can add up to big savings. A student intern working with Ryan-Downing has been placing motion sensors on vending machines so that they only turn on when people are around.
That could provide an estimated savings of $80,000 over five years if used on all 130 vending machines across campus, Ryan-Downing said.
At UK, nearly every building's heating system is monitored through a bank of computers in what facilities managers call the "delta room." Temperatures and electrical use are monitored to immediately catch pipe or fan break-downs or other anomalies and remotely control thermostats for offices that aren't being used.
That saved 39 million kilowatt hours — and about $1.5 million — between October 2007 and last month, said Galen Tolliver, supervisor of the energy management system.