Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

Lights for buildings on campus often have to stay on all night due to their ours of operation according to Jon Ladley, facilities planning manager.

March 19, 2019

Lights on, Lights off: Energy Conservation Initiatives Can Save Cornell Money

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Most classes at Cornell end by 4:30 p.m., but the lights in academic buildings sometimes stay on until midnight, even when not in use — potentially costing the university up to $60,000 each year, a 2010 report found. Several efforts have been taken to alleviate the electricity waste.

First launched in 2010, the Cornell Energy Conservation Initiative is an effort to reduce overall energy use in campus buildings through techniques such as optimizing the lighting system’s energy efficiency.

University services have been actively replacing campus lights, including exterior lights of buildings, street lights and fluorescent tubes with LEDs, according to Mark Howe, director of utilities distribution and energy management. Total expenditures on this initiative are over $7.25 million and annual utility savings are around $800,000, Howe estimated.

According to a 2016 report, ECI’s efforts produced a 17 percent energy saving, or around $2 million, from over 60 campus facilities between 2010 and 2016.

When asked if there are efforts to control when lights are on, Howe pointed to the timers and occupancy sensors — infrared devices that can detect movement— throughout the stacks in Olin and Uris libraries.

“As you walk into a stack (with occupancy sensors), the lights will pop on. And after 15 mins, if nobody is in the stack, the lights will turn off,” said Howe.

However, occupancy sensors and timers in the libraries are still limited to the stacks. Popular late-night studying spaces like Uris Library, where some sectors are open 24 hours a day from Monday to Thursday, still need the lights on.

But efforts are underway to reduce energy use.

“We have also recently reduced the number of lights that remain on in Olin after closing, and a vast majority of the lights in our public spaces have already been converted to LEDs,” said Jon Ladley, facilities planning manager.

In fact, efforts can also be made in other academic buildings. Howe cited a now-defunct student-run group called Lights Off Cornell that once saved the university over $15,000 and reduced 82,092 kilograms of CO2 simply by turning off unused lights.

Launched in 2010, Lights Off Cornell was part of Cornell’s Climate Action Plan. It sent volunteers in pairs every night after 9 p.m. to turn off unnecessary lights that were safe to be turned off in academic buildings. It typically took 20 minutes per night and volunteers would need to record the status of the lights on smartphones or datasheets as they were turning off lights in their assigned building.

Each volunteer had a profile on the task force’s website and they would able to see the amount of CO2 they saved based on the reported data.

However, Lights Off Cornell stopped operating in 2013, when core team members graduated from Cornell.

“I think it needs to be restarted,” said Howe. “You need the next group of students to come in with great ideas or to carry it on.”