Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

Rhodes Hall has had one of the biggest drops in energy consumption — almost 80 percent — after in-person classes were suspended.

April 21, 2020

Cornell Energy Usage Plummets on an Empty Campus

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The Cocktail Lounge no longer illuminates Libe Slope at night, and few string lights shine through campus dorm windows.

But one positive has emerged from the campus shutdown: Cornell is using significantly less energy than usual.  

Reduced campus occupancy, alongside energy-saving efforts, has cut wasteful energy consumption and costs, said Robert Bland, associate vice president of energy and sustainability for facilities and campus services.

“Although changes in temperature and weather would make some difference in [annual] variation, it’s clear that there is a huge reduction in campus energy use now over standard operating usage,” Bland said.

The only buildings still operating are those used for carrying out essential research and for housing lingering students — a cutback in heating and electricity use that totals to a $693,000 reduction in energy costs since March, Bland said.

Sparse campus activity has reduced heating consumption by 17,000 kilopounds of steam, a number equivalent to the resources required to annually heat about 2,000 residences.

With dark lecture halls and unplugged lab equipment, electricity consumption has dropped by 3,900,000 kilowatt hours — equivalent to slightly more than the energy a single Cornell solar farm generates in a year.

But slashing energy use after campus emptied hardly happened automatically: Facilities and Campus Services has coordinated energy saving measures to reduce heating in unoccupied campus buildings and refine energy use scheduling.

The Energy and Sustainability team within FCS has also teamed up with Environmental Health and Safety and other offices to hibernate 26 fume hoods — lab safety devices that account for half of total campus energy consumption.

“Close coordination and planning with facilities management operations resulted in a unified and swift implementation of steam load shed in approved buildings around campus,” Bland said. “A group of 21 control technicians, made up of trade labor from each zone, activated load shed and continue to track building performance.”

As the evacuation of students and professors has decreased energy demands, their absence shows on Cornell’s Big Red Energy Scoreboard. Residence halls consume more electricity than any other campus facility, and the building dashboard suggests that energy use has dipped in all of the ones for which it provides data.

In the last month, electricity use has dropped by more than 32 percent in Clara Dickson Hall, compared to the same period in 2019. In the nearby Low Rise 6, electricity consumption has slid almost 46 percent.

Across Thurston Avenue Bridge and down East Avenue, total energy use in Frank Rhodes Hall has declined by almost 80 percent, compared to April 2019. But this substantial dip in energy consumption is not just the result of virtual engineering classes, Bland said.

Courtesy of the Big Red Energy Scoreboard

Energy consumption has decreased across campus, with Rhodes Hall seeing a drop of nearly 80 percent.

Campus organizations partnered with FCS diligently turn off lights and printers in Rhodes Hall, he said. The College of Engineering Green Team has also encouraged sustainable practices within the building that have improved energy efficiency.

Bland added that energy and facilities management operations continue to test and improve energy systems around campus, using platforms the University has developed while it works to achieve carbon neutrality by 2035.

The temporary campus vacancy has only furthered this goal. Energy use had already been trending downward, and on March 7, renewable energy covered 100 percent of Cornell’s power demands for the first time.

“Renewables won’t match demand all the time, but we will see more days where the demand is matched by green energy,” Bland said. “Any action we can take to reduce campus expenses, and reduce energy waste, is supportive of our sustainability goals.”