Ray Leblanc, a senior stationary engineer for the University of Arizona's Facilities Management, studied an array of computer screens that would make an international bond trader envious.
The cluster of data, tucked into a quiet control room with a view of six deafening water chillers, represented the far-flung network of water and ice-making chillers, boilers, cooling towers, turbines, pumps and tunnels that power, light, heat and cool the 13 million square feet of building space on the main campus and the Arizona Health Sciences Center.
In labs across the 355-acre campus, in some of the 180 UA buildings, research continued into novel ways to generate sustainable energy, arrest climate change or conserve vast amounts of water. LeBlanc's seven computer screens and all the machinery they controlled, ensured that the work went on.
"Think of it as three rings coming together," said LeBlanc, the three rings being the UA's three power plants harnessed into one sophisticated system. LeBlanc's post, at the Arizona Health Sciences Center plant, is monitored around the clock. "I can access the air handlers, to judge how much chilled water is being sent," he said, explaining the reach of the computerized system at his fingertips.
While researchers struggle to unlock secrets that will allow us to live more efficiently, the 540 employees of Facilities Management have incorporated principles of sustainability into each workday. When the electric bill runs about $1 million a month, embracing sustainability usually comes with dramatic savings.
On a warm early November day, Chris Kopach, associate director of Facilities Management, ran down a lengthy list of the department's sustainable practices.
"We took the entire campus to reclaimed water for all our turf about three years ago," he said. "We did a computerized irrigation system of all our turf areas – the football field, the baseball fields, the University Mall – and then we tied that in to all the reclaimed water."
Kopach paused only briefly. The custodial crew uses mops that are made out of pop bottles now, he said. "The mop handles are made out of bamboo poles." Much of the University Motor Pool runs on E-85 fuel – 85 percent ethanol, derived from corn, that burns cleaner than gasoline.
He continued: "Our cardboard, our white paper, aluminum cans, plastics – all that is recycled."
The UA placed fourth in 2009 among the nation's largest universities in the nationwide competition known as Recyclemania, a partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's WasteWise program.
In August, the University installed six solar-powered trash compactors. Enzyme-based cubes allow urinals to be flushed just once a day.
Since the late '90s, Kopach said, UA utilities managers "have been aggressively looking at energy savings."
Now, said Marianne Deutsch, senior staff technician for utilities, the UA can generate a third of its energy requirement. In 2002, Facilities Management installed two gas turbine generators, which not only produce 12 megawatts of electricity, but collect the waste heat they create and turn it into a combined 56,000 pounds of steam.
Even in the summer, the steam does not go to waste, said Deutsch. The Health Sciences Center uses a lot of it. "Steam feeds the autoclaves, sterilizers, kitchens – there's a lot of use for the steam. So in the summertime, we do not turn on a boiler, we're basically just running off of our waste heat, which is very efficient."
But cooling is a far bigger challenge in Arizona, and that's where ice comes in. The UA can produce 29,000 tons of chilled water to cool its buildings at a highly efficient rating of 0.683 kilowatts per ton, Deutsch said. "A normal air conditioner at your house generates it for about 1.5 kw per ton, so we do a little bit less than half," she said. "Pretty efficient system."
The ice plant, which is actually split over two different facilities, is a favorite stop for visiting engineers and others.
"We actually have another tour coming tomorrow, with 27 more people," Deutsch said.
"Is this China or is this Dubai?" Kopach asked.
"No, they're actually from Phoenix," said Deutsch. "There are about 10 or 12 coming from just here in Tucson – the VA, school districts, mall developers."
The bulk of the ice-making occurs at the Central Refrigeration Building, where 156 eight-foot-tall tanks that look like giant ice buckets are arranged in two tiers. (Another 49 tanks were added last year to the main campus Central Heating and Refrigeration Plant.) Plastic tubing carrying a 25 percentage glycol mix freezes the plain tap water solid inside – ice rinks in a can. The freezing is done at night, when it's cooler and the process is more efficient. In the heat of the next day, when everyone else in town is cranking up the air-conditioning, the ice is used to chill water and cool buildings.
"When it's 110 out, 115, and we'd really have to run a lot of chillers and pull in a lot of electricity, we don't have to do that now," said Kopach, "cause we can draw down from that ice."
The effect on the University's electric bill is significant. The bill is based on actual consumption and also on peak usage during the day, Deutsch explained. "If you can harvest your ice during these peak times and cut this peak off, you eliminate your demand charge by this much, which can be 4 megs very easily."By lowering the peak, they lower their demand charge. "We can save $20,000 to $30,000 a month in demand charges if we're careful."
In addition to the ice system, Facilities Management linked its three power plants in the smart grid directed by Leblanc and his colleagues. "Back in the '90s, we had no redundancy, so if we lost a chiller, people were screaming," said Deutsch. Now they afford to bring a plant down for maintenance and building occupants are unaffected. They've also installed 550 meters throughout the system to keep tabs on building efficiency and flag the energy hogs.
Innovations like the ice plant have helped Facilities Management hold its costs down even as the University was adding about a million square feet of building space, Kopach said. Much of the latest expansion has consisted of new research buildings, which require lots of energy. "That's your low-hanging fruit right there," said Deutsch. "If you can make those more efficient, then ultimately you've reduced the energy on campus."
BIO5 researchers are studying one such possibility: a system for long-term dry storage of RNA and DNA samples at room temperature, which could replace freezers, which Deutsch called "huge energy hogs."
Estimates are that a single freezer costs $1,000 a year to operate. A dry storage system would use no energy, reduce costs and free up space. The system preserves samples in a substance that forms a thermo-stable barrier to prevent degradation from heat and UV light. Samples are rehydrated when they're needed.
A pilot program at Stanford determined the potential savings over 10 years to be more than 40 million kilowatt hours of energy, a carbon footprint reduction of more than 18,000 tons of CO2 and a net cost savings of up to $16 million.
Deutsch said Facilities Management is always looking at new technologies. She'd like to have more fuel options, like hydrogen or liquid nitrogen. However, "we're pretty conservative," she said. "No. 1, we want to conserve the assets that we have. You ruin a million-dollar boiler, you're in trouble for a while."