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U of L Suspends Program Designed To Make School More Energy Efficient

J. Tyler Franklin

In a move to be more fiscally-conservative, the University of Louisville is suspending a contract designed to make the school’s facilities more energy efficient.

The news comes only weeks after U of L touted the progress it’s made reducing the university’s greenhouse gas emissions — progress which was bolstered by the millions of dollars spent upgrading lighting, insulation and mechanical systems on the school’s three campuses.

So far, the university has spent more than $51 million on the first three phases of the program, which officials estimate have reduced the school’s greenhouse gas emissions by more than 46,000 tons. That’s the equivalent of removing 7,690 cars from the road.

“Our first goal of the plan was to reduce the university’s carbon footprint by upgrading building systems and lighting and energy-consuming operations,” said U of L Physical Plant Assistant Director George Kirwan.

But only three phases of the plan are finished, and progress on a proposed fourth phase is on a permanent hold.

U of L spokeswoman Cindy Hess said the school hopes to be able to reactivate the contract in the future.

“The university does not want to take on any additional long-term debt at this time,” she wrote in an email. “This is not a direct result of budget cuts, but rather a move toward taking a more conservative financial position.”

The fourth phase wasn’t fully planned out, but potential projects under consideration included expanding the campus automation network and replacing more traditional lights with LED bulbs.

Though all the phases of U of L’s performance contract with Siemens have cost millions of dollars, the company guarantees a certain amount of money in energy savings each year that’s projected to eventually pay for the improvements.

In a 2016 greenhouse gas report, the university estimated the first two phases alone would reduce its utility bill by more than $12,000 a day. U of L’s guaranteed return on investment for each phase ranged from 3.6 percent to nearly 14 percent.

Kirwan said with an interim president in place, it made sense to wait on making any other large financial decisions.

"Until the administration is a little more permanent," he said, and the staff can take the pulse of the new president to make sure he or she agrees with the energy efficient investments the school is considering.

Other U of L sustainability programs also got the ax last month due to budget cuts.

A planned faculty position to serve as the director of the school’s new Interdisciplinary Masters in Sustainability has been put on hold, valued at about $120,000.

Also nixed is the vast majority of the money earmarked to help the university implement its 2010 Climate Action Plan.

U of L has spent about $182,000 on this each year, and about $145,000 of that money has gone to the Earn-A-Bike program. The program aims to cut the carbon emissions from students who commute via car, and incentivizes students to give up parking passes in exchange for bicycle vouchers.

U of L set an ambitious goal in that Climate Action Plan: climate neutrality by 2050. The recent greenhouse gas analysis called for more, not less action to help the school meet that goal.

“We are well on our way, but we need to step up our efforts and accelerate progress to achieve that goal,” the report said. “Current rates of reduction will not get us there by 2050, and failure to do so is dangerous for the institution and our planetary future.”

And with the cuts to climate programs and the suspension of the Siemens contract, it’ll be more difficult than before for U of L to meet those lofty goals.

Erica Peterson is WFPL's Director of News and Programming.