TEES lab saves A&M System, others millions in energy costs

June 16, 2006
| By: Aubrey Bloom

Temperatures are on the rise, and so are energy costs -- but not for some universities in The Texas A&M University System. For that, thank the Energy Systems Laboratory (ESL) in the Texas Engineering Experiment Station (TEES). Texas deregulated the retail electricity industry in January 2002 for all markets that were part of investor-owned utilities. Most Texans can now choose a retail electric provider, but there are some areas where electric competition is not available. Since deregulation, ESL has been working with several system universities in the areas where competition is available -- Texas A&M International University, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Texas A&M-Kingsville, Texas A&M-Galveston, Texas A&M-Commerce, Tarleton State University and the Institute of Biosciences and Technology at the Texas A&M Health Science Center -- to procure electricity at the best price. "If you're a large customer, such as a university, you have to go out and compete for the best price," said Dan Turner, ESL director and Regents Fellow and professor in Texas A&M's Department of Mechanical Engineering. "By aggregating all the A&M System loads on one contract, we've saved the participating universities a lot of money. In the first year alone, they saved between $1.5 and 2 million when compared with the previous year's utility bills," he said. To procure electricity, Turner and ESL engineers issue a request for proposals, or RFP, so that retail electric providers can bid to provide electricity. ESL evaluates the providers' proposals and makes their recommendations. The chief financial officers of each participating university or agency make the final decision on which provider to go with and for how long; typical contracts last for 12 or 24 months. ESL is now preparing to issue a new RFP for electricity procurement beginning in September. "It's virtually impossible to predict what the market is going to do," Turner said. "There are so many factors involved, so you try to get the best price you can." Since the initial RFP in 2002, ESL has added two Texas Engineering Extension Service facilities, Texas Cooperative Extension, the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station and the Prairie View A&M nursing school in Houston. ESL has also added Stephen F. Austin University to the contract and has worked with the Texas Health and Human Services Commission doing similar aggregation of its facilities in eligible areas. And ESL provides advice, sharing its procurement experiences with other organizations, such as the University of Texas-Pan American. Besides procuring electricity, which saves money, the lab also works to improve energy efficiency, which saves energy. ESL specializes in continuous commissioning, a trademarked and licensed process of TEES and ESL that works to optimize HVAC (heating, ventilating and air conditioning) systems and control systems to improve comfort and reduce energy consumption. ESL has worked with Texas A&M since 1995, working with the university's Energy Office and Utility Office for a savings of about $35 million in energy costs. Four teams of commissioning engineers work on the campus buildings and another team is working on the university's utility plants and water distribution systems. The commissioning teams consist of commissioning engineers, technicians and even graduate students. "It¿s a great training ground for students getting their master's or Ph.D. degrees in mechanical engineering," Turner said. Turner said ESL commissioned the TAMIU campus in Laredo, reducing initial consumption by a third in the university's first six buildings. And the lab commissioned 12 buildings and the thermal storage system for Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and is continuing work with the university on its chilled water distribution system. ESL is also commissioning 20 schools in the Austin Independent School District. U.S. Army is biggest continuous customer But ESL's biggest continuous commissioning customer is the U.S. Army, working to commission several Army hospitals throughout the United States, including the hospitals at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Fort Carson in Colorado, the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio and the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Washington, D.C. "Our influence in the area of continuous commissioning has spread across the country," Turner said. "Walter Reed alone has saved more than $1 million in the past 22 months." Originally printed in the May/June issue of Systemwide.

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