UW News

July 16, 2015

$2.3M energy conservation project in Physics/Astronomy Building complete

UW Facilities Services

UW Associate Vice President of Facilities Services Charles Kennedy speaks in front of the Physics/Astronomy Building.

UW Associate Vice President of Facilities Services Charles Kennedy speaks in front of the Physics/Astronomy Building.Alicia Halberg/University of Washington

University of Washington Facilities Services, Puget Sound Energy, McKinstry and the Washington State Department of Commerce celebrated the completion of a $2.3 million energy conservation project Wednesday that will improve teaching and research laboratories within the iconic Physics/Astronomy Building.

The capital retrofit project has drastically reduced ventilation system waste by installing high-tech controls, drives and motors to “right fit” the quantity of conditioned air delivered to labs based on the actual occupancy, time of day, day of week and season.

Project costs

Total project cost: $2,287,000

WA State Energy Conservation Grant: $978,555

Seattle City Light rebate (pending): $222,043

Puget Sound Energy rebate: $482,466

Net UW project cost (after grants and rebates): $603,936

Utility Savings Summary

Annual campus electricity savings: 965,397 kWh

Annual central steam (natural gas) savings: 92,250 Therms

Annual campus chilled water savings: 91 MMBTU

Total annual utility savings: $115,698

The UW’s net project cost of $603,936, compared with annual savings of $115,698, mean the project will have paid for itself in 5.22 years.

The system replaces old equipment that conditioned and delivered a fixed maximum amount of air 24 hours per day, every day, all year, resulting in hundreds of hours of over-ventilation annually. The project will save the university $115,000 per year in utility costs while improving laboratory safety, comfort and functionality of the space.

Regional partnerships

On Wednesday, Puget Sound Energy’s Vice President for Customer Solutions, Jason Teller, presented the UW with a utility conservation incentive check for $482,466, recognizing its annual savings of 92,250 therms of natural gas. Overall, the project reduces the building’s annual energy consumption by 17 percent.

“This project highlights the important of our community partnership with Puget Sound Energy and the Department of Commerce when it comes to supporting sustainability and making our campus more efficient,” said Charles Kennedy, UW’s associate vice president of facilities services. “Partnerships like these better enable us to deliver cost-effective, world-class teaching and research facilities, and support the amazing educational and research discoveries of our talented faculty and students.”

In 2013, the project was awarded a $978,555 grant from the competitive Energy Efficiency Grants for Higher Education and Local Governments program, administered by the state Department of Commerce. The grant jump-started the project by providing critical up-front capital to secure the energy savings and utility incentive in 2015.

Project details

The project involves a heating ventilation and air conditioning system improvement for the basement of the Physics/Astronomy Building. The basement contains laboratories, support space and offices serving the physics, astronomy and biology departments.

The project reduces building energy consumption by installing 121 variable air volume terminal boxes in existing ductwork and 11 new high-efficiency motors and variable frequency drives in air-handling units and exhaust fans.

These changes allow the system to vary the quantity of air heated and cooled in response to the actual environmental conditions and occupancy of the building, rather than providing an arbitrary, fixed-volume of air at all times as it previously did, even when the building was nearly empty. This reduces the amount of steam and chilled water used to heat and cool the air, and cuts the amount of electricity used to power the building’s fans.

The project also rebalanced and retro-commissioned the ventilation system to optimize operational efficiency and improve human comfort, and to conform with institutional lab safety standards.

  • The estimated natural gas energy use avoided is 92,250 therms annually, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s energy resource calculator. That translates into approximately 489 metrics tons of CO2 equivalent avoided each year, or the emissions from 103 cars, or 55,037 gallons of gasoline.
  • Historically the building has consumed an average of $640,000 annually in total utility costs (electricity and natural gas in the form of steam produced at the UW Power Plant.)
    • The project has a measured energy conservation benefit of $115,000 in total utility costs avoided. This equates to an average 17 percent reduction annually.
    • The average annual natural gas usage for the 265,000 square foot building is $312,000 (or 548,656 therms); thus the project will reduce natural gas use by nearly 16.8 percent annually.
    • The university stands to save $58,000 in natural gas costs each year, and nearly the same amount in electricity costs.

Lab use

What goes on in these labs? One lab is working on measuring the radiation produced by a single electron, which could lead to better understanding of the neutrino, an elemental particle. The labs also contain furnaces that have produced the world’s thinnest nanoscale semiconductor — only three atoms thick. This discovery could revolutionize solar cells in the future.

The building

Completed in 1994, the architectural award-winning Physics/Astronomy Building was designed by world-renowned architect César Pelli. It is a complex of three above-ground structures and a large basement laboratory. The three structures consist of an auditorium wing with a swooping roof line, a six-story office tower and a four-story horizontal wing of labs and offices. The complex totals 265,000 gross square feet.

The project affected 38 research laboratories comprising 55,700 GSF of space. The building also contains 19 teaching laboratories, four lecture halls with capacities ranging from 85 to 250 students and a 40-seat planetarium, seven smaller classrooms/seminar rooms, a full machine shop and other industrial support space.