Chapter 5: Reducing Energy Consumption as Step One to Building a Sustainability Movement

by Alisa White, Ph.D.

Posted on November 14, 2023

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Sustainability programs take many forms on college campuses, from recycling programs and mindful consumerism to the use of renewable energy sources such as solar or wind power. Sam Houston State University (SHSU) is taking the first systematic steps to a sustainability program.

For maximum impact, our university’s eventual goal is to go beyond one-off sustainability initiatives to leverage the power of a sustainability movement. Movements have momentum and power to effect lasting change. They are shaped and propelled by people with a vision for the future that often includes changes in cultural values, policy, and practice. Movements are fueled by people with a passion for change. The loudest voices promoting sustainability on our campus are those of students. Students care about the environment. They care about the world they’re inheriting and will leave to those who follow them. Students are asking decision-makers to factor in sustainability concerns ranging from environmental harm to natural resource depletion as they make decisions on strategic plans, master plans, construction, and campus operations. Although it will take some time to build a sustainability movement, we have committed to taking steps that move our campus toward a culture of sustainability, and our approach is to involve multiple departments to implement a variety of initiatives. Sam Houston State University’s sustainability committee has been inspired by the passionate voices of students who want to see progress, and our campus’s distributed approach to effect small campus-wide changes is expected to lead to a multiplied, significant impact.

It is easy to initiate a sustainability program that makes financial sense. Positive returns on investments are rational and easily justified. It is more challenging to take the “heart” approach by committing to effect change because it’s the right thing to do for the environment and for future generations if the financial return on investment is not readily apparent. Our university’s approach to sustainability is to blend the rationales from the head—what makes sense financially—and the heart—what makes sense to protect the environment. Those two sides support the concept known as the “triple bottom line,” bringing together people, planet, and profits. Another motivation is the pull from business and industry. I recently toured a lumber company that often hires our students and graduates. The company CEO told me sustainability is an important topic for the lumber industry and that knowledge of and value for sustainability are big pluses for new hires. This is just one example of a private company committed to an ideal valued by its owners and customers. On a larger scale, ESG—environmental, social, and corporate governance—is increasingly important to industries and their stockholders, and producing graduates who can join their new professions with some understanding of sustainability practices makes sense.

According to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (Ezarik, 2023), few campuses are doing absolutely nothing, but many of their sustainability programs are more or less ad hoc. That is where Sam Houston State University found itself recently. We had an Energy Manager whose focus was heavily transactional, and efforts were spent analyzing utility bills for accuracy rather than analyzing the consumption activity that drove those bills. Until recently, our sustainability committee had not met since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down many campus operations. As we started to track our campus efforts, we realized that departments were engaged in sustainability efforts on their own. They were committed to doing what they could. We began looking for ways to put institutional commitment and support behind their efforts to see how we could amplify them 

Buildings were operating as if they
were fully occupied at all times.  

We hired a new Energy Manager who is focused on reducing our consumption. The thought is often to focus on producing green or renewable energies; however, we decided to focus on reducing consumption before moving to producing energy. Reducing consumption makes the move to renewable energies more cost efficient because less production is needed. The Energy Manager analyzed the university’s electrical load shape and determined that it was very “flat” with load factors approaching 75% even when buildings were unoccupied. Buildings were operating as if they were fully occupied at all times. This finding led to the creation of a turn-down project that would retro-commission the buildings to set them back to the original design intent, review individual mechanical systems for efficiency, and incorporate strategies for occupied periods that would create efficiencies for the building. A team was assembled from the HVAC and electrical shops, and they were empowered to develop and test strategies to save energy. They measured the Energy Usage Index of all our buildings and compared them to national averages through the Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey.
The team chose to begin the work on a building that was 14 years old, has 147,422 square feet, is five levels, and contains a chiller plant separate from the university central plant and a variable air volume HVAC system. This building is a testable, self-contained representation of the larger university. The team installed sub-metering into the building in order to determine the individual efficiencies of the mechanical systems. They then used this data to create the prospective scope and project parameters. The goal of the project was to return the building to its original design and implement setbacks based on schedules, while also updating the building automation system. The project employed five primary strategies:
  1. Basic Maintenance – The team saved 50 kw/hour (10% of the project savings) by clearing the relief air damper screens, verifying the building pressure sensors, and correcting the settings for the air handler unit outdoor air intake
  2. Schedule Optimization – The team worked with the building liaison to understand the schedule for the building, considering specialized spaces that require additional humidity control. Based on the building schedule, all unoccupied hours were turned down to perform at 85 degrees Fahrenheit when cooling and 55 degrees Fahrenheit when warming. This resulted in approximately 80% of the project savings.
  3. Discharge Air Temperature Reset – By resetting the discharge-air temperature, the team was able to reduce the chilled water compressor run time and reduce the reheat energy, resulting in approximately 10% of the project savings.
  4. Static Pressure Reset – The team adjusted the static pressure reset to a variable static pressure based on the highest air volume flow rate necessary for the zone. The savings effect of this step has not yet been determined.
  5. Occupancy Controls – The team also identified large classrooms that were not utilized for portions of the day. They installed occupancy sensors to allow for a three-degree setback when the rooms were not occupied. This resulted in five hours of daily savings above the scheduled savings.
Overall, the project resulted in estimated annual savings of $140,000 after a project cost of $94,774.35. This represented a return on investment of 47% and a simple payback of eight months. The project also resulted in carbon savings of 745 tons annually. This turn down project is now being replicated in other buildings across campus. While the savings are modest for one building, multiplying these results across our campus’s 5.6 million gross square feet and 156 classrooms will yield significant annual savings.
This one project has spurred excitement and support across campus, and the sustainability committee has been reconstituted to take a larger leadership role. The committee includes members from Facilities Services, the Energy Manager, faculty, students, and representatives from our local city government. The committee provides a forum for communicating ideas for sustainable practices, initiatives, and engagement while fostering an active partnership among university employees, students, and the community.
One project does not constitute a movement, but we are finding people who are willing to step up and lead. Recently, our Student Advisory Board presented to our System’s Board of Regents a recommendation for more composting of food waste on our campuses. After reaching out to our dining services provider, we discovered that our dining partner had purchased composting bins before the COVID-19 pandemic and was eager to start a program. We then pitched the idea to faculty in our Agricultural Sciences department, and the department developed a plan to create a meaningful composting program. Beginning fall 2023, food waste from our dining halls and brown waste from our campus will be utilized to create compost materials for our campus.

These initiatives range from minor to major projects, but they demonstrate our commitment to seeking ways to make a collective positive impact.  

Other grassroots initiatives include a partnership with our energy provider to install a solar-powered car charging station, installing equipment to recapture water to be used in our chiller plant, monitoring bulk purchases to reduce excess waste, requiring chemical spill kits in laboratories to prevent potential environmental pollution, retrofitting for LED lighting, introducing more plant-based recipes in our dining halls, weighing food waste to ensure we are serving appropriately sized portions, and more. These initiatives range from minor to major projects, but they demonstrate our commitment to seeking ways to make a collective positive impact. They also require buy in from multiple departments who commit to allocating personnel hours not only to implement the efforts, but to measure and track their impact.

Sustainability initiatives range in scale, impact, and complexity. The number of grassroots initiatives that were already happening at SHSU provide evidence that the desire is there for the campus community to act. Sustainability practices can be interwoven throughout our campus, and the ideas for potential projects can come from all levels. It stands to reason that having more people with different perspectives at the discussion table will generate a broad array of ideas, such as increased accessibility for pedestrians and bicycles to allow for a reduction in vehicular emissions, increased awareness in procurement from vendors that have sustainable practices, and even a decreased reliance on paper materials. When we can make sustainable practices easier to implement, people are more likely to not only participate, but also see themselves in the plan. Our campus community members have decided to establish an expectation that sustainability is important, create a mechanism for the collection and evaluation of ideas, and cast a vision for how we can employ sustainable practices on our campuses. Our employees and our students want to be involved, and they want to unify around the common goal of protecting our resources. It’s that interest that will take sustainability from individual programs to a movement. The movement not only will generate sustainability programs, but it will establish a culture of sustainability that will nourish the head and the heart.

Amanda Withers, chief financial officer and senior vice president for operations, contributed to this chapter.


Ezarik, M. (2023). "Actions and hopes of the sustainability-focused student.” Inside Higher Education. Retrieved from