Sandhills Community College might be famous for its picturesque campus and expansive horticultural gardens with exotic plant species, but those aren’t the only environmentally conscious things about the school.
The college has cut its energy use by 30 percent over the last 10 years, mostly thanks to what’s called a Guaranteed Energy Savings contract that it entered into in late 2015.
The deal with Pepco Energy Services, now part of Constellation New Energy, covered a number of bases for the college. Much of the heating and cooling equipment and lighting fixtures throughout the 50-year-old campus had become expensive to operate and was nearing the end of its lifespan anyway. The $4.8 million energy savings contract, financed through a Bank of America loan, was a virtually risk-free method of ensuring that upgrading those systems would pay for itself in the long run.
It was an arrangement that George Little, longtime chair of Sandhills’ board of trustees, had seen work firsthand as a trustee at Western Carolina University.
“A lot of people were skeptical because they hadn’t heard of it before and it’s new,” Little said. “Let’s say you have a classroom building that’s 40 or 45 years old. If you look at the heating and cooling and electrical and lighting, and have an engineering type firm come in … they say this is the potential savings, this is what it would cost and this is how you pay for it.”
Sandhills selected Pepco, which at the time was one of 17 energy companies authorized by the state to execute energy contracts with public colleges and universities. It performed an energy study on SCC campuses in both Moore and Hoke counties. The resulting proposal came with $400,000 in energy savings.
“You have the energy company go ahead and make all of these improvements that you really couldn’t afford to do otherwise,” said Brenda Jackson, Sandhills’ executive vice president.
“The energy company tells you how much they’ll be able to save you on an annual basis if you implement all the changes that they recommend. We work that around the money that we borrow, and if they don’t meet on an annual basis the energy savings that they said they would achieve, they have to pay you the difference.”
The college expects to spend about $7 million less on energy costs over the 20-year term of the agreement than it would have otherwise.
“In the meantime we have better lighting, better heating, better temperature control in facilities for faculty and staff and students,” Jackson said. “It really has been huge for us to be able to do that.”
Work finished in May 2017. According to Doug Smith, Sandhills’ facilities director, the college saved 30 percent in the first year of reporting, and 32 percent in the second year. In December, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality recognized Sandhills for reducing energy use in keeping with its Utility Savings Initiative.
In addition to reducing energy use, the college’s upgraded utility infrastructure has required less attention on a day-to-day basis. So staff spend less time doing things like changing out long-lived bulbs in LED lighting fixtures, cleaning better-designed equipment, and general preventive maintenance.
“It’s been a huge reduction in work on my department,” Smith said. “In fact, part of the project was a guaranteed $12,000 per year annual maintenance savings.”
Technology that simply didn’t exist several decades ago has also made systems more efficient. The college’s new HVAC controls can gauge whether a building is in light or heavy use, or vacant, at any given time by measuring the carbon dioxide levels inside. Automatic controls adjust temperature settings accordingly.
“Our systems are so sophisticated that they know when buildings are more occupied than others so we can save money by not running systems wide open when there aren’t as many people,” Smith said.