When mercury rises, Baker scrambles to avoid fines

05/2/08

It never fails.

Every time it begins to heat up outside, e-mails are sent to every student and faculty member reminding them to turn off the lights when they leave a room and only use the air conditioners when needed.

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While many students are afraid the lights are going to be shut off due to an electrical outage, it's actually just Baker University administrators not wanting to pay the penalty for going over the university's peak usage amount, Director of Physical Plant Gary Walbridge said.

Irwin Hall Resident Assistant Lindsy Harders said the university doesn't have strict rules for the residents to go by.

"I turn off all the lights when I leave the room and that kind of stuff anyway," Harders said. "They aren't strict at all on that kind of stuff."

Harders said RAs don't have to meet with hall residents to discuss conserving energy.

"I think if Gary Walbridge wants us to talk to our residents about conserving energy, then he can come talk to them at the beginning of the year," Harders said.

Baker receives its electricity from Baldwin City, which in turn, buys 5.5 megawatts per month on contract from Kansas City Power and Light and the Grand River Dam Authority. The rest of the energy used in the city is then produced in Baldwin City at the local power plant.

For a resident in Baldwin City, the city charges 10.3 cents per kilowatt. City Administrator Jeff Dingman said Baker is charged a lower rate of 6.5 because of the massive amounts of energy the university uses. Due to the large amounts of energy the university uses every year, the city put Baker on a peak-usage-amount plan. The plan allows the school to set a peak amount to use one month within a 12-month period but is not allowed to go over that amount through the 12 months or it pays a $1,000 fine.

"We have to be able to handle it every time they need it," Dingman said. "Our system is set up the same way when we buy from KCP&L. They see the 9.7 (kilowatts) we used last August, and they say they're going to base our dollar amount on that."

Walbridge said Baker is charged about $9,000 every month for the demand charge, and then pays an energy usage charge on top of that, according to how much energy the university actually used that month. The energy charge is based on each kilowatt-hour, and usually is about $1,000 a month.

"They look at us as the largest user of electricity in the city, so at a certain point in time we're going to hit our peak and they want us to stay below that peak," Walbridge said. "We agree to that peak because we know we're going to hit a high level, and once we hit that peak, we can't go above that. We've successfully stayed below it for the past four years. That penalty is $1,000 a month for a year. That's pretty good that we haven't gone over. The university as a whole has worked really well to support that."

Five years ago, the city decided to put Baker on two transformers rather than one, due to the excessive amounts of energy being pulled through the main line. The campus fried a transformer at one point and put Baker over its demand usage.

With the new living and learning center opening in August, the city decided to place a transformer directly next to the residence hall because it will be entirely electric.

"Everything is electric," Walbridge said. "This is the only building we have on campus that's all electric. All our heat right now everywhere else is gas powered."

While the city will spend about $200,000 on the new transformer, it has asked for Baker to help with the costs and contribute $20,000.

Currently, Baker is on a 2,400 voltage system, and the city is at 7,200. After the new transformer is installed, Baker will switch to the 7,200 system in order to make the residence hall more cost efficient and allow the transformer to last longer. With Harter Union being the building that uses the most electricity, the transformer will not have to work as hard to power everything.

"When you're on a 2,400 system, the size we are, we're pulling everything we can supply, making those transformers work harder," Walbridge said. "We'll have better electricity here on campus when we change to 7,200."

As the weather will continue to get warmer, the amount of energy used at Baker will gradually increase, which will make Baker have to monitor more closely so it doesn't reach its peak usage amount.

Senior Professor of Biology Roger Boyd said students and faculty members can monitor how much electricity they are using both on campus and at home.

Rather than the regular light bulbs many people use, they could switch to fluorescent light bulbs in a home. Fluorescent light bulbs use about one-tenth of the energy of a regular light bulb and can last much longer.

"It saves the amount of electricity we have to generate, as well as saving on the electric bill," Boyd said.

Although fluorescent light bulbs can be a bit pricier than regular light bulbs, Boyd said over a few years people would actually save money because the light bulbs wouldn't have to be replaced as often, and people's electricity bills would be significantly lower.

Recently, Wal-Mart stores began promoting fluorescent light bulbs by putting them on sale and are trying to sell 10 million within a year. Stores have already hit their goal in seven months and have helped bring the prices down for the energy-saving light bulbs.

Along with using fluorescent light bulbs, Boyd said all appliances should be plugged into a power strip instead of into individual plug-ins.

"One of the things we don't have a lot of control over is that a lot of televisions, radios and stereos have immediate turn on, meaning when you hit the button it's instantly on," Boyd said. "The reason it did that is because it never actually turned off. It's using up electricity 24/7. You should plug all of those into a power strip, and turn that power strip off when you're not using it."

He also said people who are looking for new appliances such as refrigerators, dishwashers, washers and dryers, should look to see how energy sufficient they are. Although they may be more costly, the payback for these appliances happens within a few years.

Walbridge said Baker tries to cut back on its use of electricity by installing motion sensors in bathrooms and offices. When there is no movement in the room, the lights automatically turn off. A few halls in different campus buildings also have motion sensors, turning halls dark when no one is around.

With many ways people can cut back on bills and save energy, Boyd thinks people aren't trying hard enough because it's a matter of convenience for many.

"We don't think too much in the U.S. about inconveniencing ourselves," he said. "We're used to everything being convenient; it's going to be some getting used to for us to change our ways."

Walbridge said he's hoping the all-electric residence hall will be more cost efficient.

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