Heating cost increases won't be a serious problem for the university

By Wylie Pennell

The cost of heating will increase this year, regardless of the method, according to a CNN report released in October.

Americans will spend $977 on average to heat their homes this winter, according to reports released by the Energy Information Administration.  This cost is 10 percent higher than last winter's cost of $889.

Because the University of Richmond is in the South where it does not get so cold, there will be increases in the costs of heating dorms, academic buildings and apartments, but not to a great extent, according to George Souleret, university engineer.

The homes that will be most affected are those that rely on heat from oil, the cost of which will go up by about 22 percent from last year, according to an EIA report.  Also, only about 7 percent of American homes rely on this kind of heat, according to the report.

World oil supplies continue to lag behind world oil demands this year, according to a separate EIA report issued Nov. 6.  Even with oil costs between $80 and $90 per barrel in October, according to the report, U.S. oil consumption is expected to increase only 0.5 percent in 2007 and 1.0 percent in 2008.

"Continued economic growth and colder average temperatures this winter [compared to] last winter combine to push demand higher," according to the EIA report.

Other sources will increase to a lesser extent.

The university uses coal, natural gas, oil and electricity to heat its academic buildings, offices, dorms and apartments, said Souleret, who earned his degree from the University of Virginia and has been the university's engineer for 22 years.

"The increased costs of heating will affect the university very little," he said.

The average costs among the four sources vary.  The university spends an estimated $900,000 on coal, he said, $400,000 on natural gas, $36,000 on oil and $2.5 million on electricity each year.

"Some years are just better than others," Souleret said, noting that the university has previously had problems with unexpected high heating costs.  An article from The Collegian published in the 1920s or 1930s reported on-campus energy shortages that led to energy rationing during that winter, he said.

Energy costs for the university are set in a two-year cycle, he said.

"I'm not worried about costs this year," Souleret said, "because I'm already worrying about what costs will be two years from now."

To estimate these costs, Souleret looks at information from the Department of Energy and other futures markets, he said.

"I also call suppliers and ask for their forecasts, and they usually laugh at me," he said, chuckling.

Costs of energy are known to increase each year, he said, which is why the university was able to plan ahead for these costs.  Souleret has charts that track the costs of various sources of energy that also aid him in making budget predictions, he said.

With the help of all this information and estimates, he makes his best assumption of the costs and hopes for the best, he said.  The cost of electricity was overestimated for this year, Souleret said, but he tries to have minimal surplus each year, allowing a 1 to 2 percent leeway in each year's budget for necessary adjustments.

The University Forest Apartments are heated by electrical energy, he said, and each has its own air system.  The cost of electricity is set through 2011 through a contract the university has with Dominion Virginia Power, he said.

This electricity is used for all campus facilities, according to the university facilities website.  To supply power for necessary functions, the main campus is connected to a 13,200-volt substation and delivered at 4,160 volts by university-owned circuits, according to the website, but the on-campus power plant only supplies heat to half of the campus.

The university also sits over a mile of tunnels that run throughout the campus, according to the website, which house the steam pipes and condensate return system along with high-voltage electrical lines and telecommunications cables.

Only two campus buildings rely on fuel oil for heat, Souleret said. They are the International House and the Law dorm.  The Special Programs Building is the only building on-campus that relies on natural gas for heat, he said, the cost of which is less volatile, so the university does not have to worry as much about its price.

Coal is the major source of heat on campus, Souleret said, provided through a contract with J & J Energy, which is a coal broker that has many sources of coal.  The coal mostly comes from southwest Virginia and is of the quality that the university trusts and wants to use, he said.

The university uses coal for two main reasons.  First, its costs are less volatile than others Souleret said, so the university does not have to be as concerned about its costs changing compared with others.

Coal is also in close proximity, he said, so it is relatively easy to attain.  Transporting the coal is the only possible cause for cost concern, but transportation costs are included in the contract the university keeps with the company, Souleret said.

This high reliance on coal is a cause for concern for some students on campus.

Erin Murdoch, a senior from Newtown, Conn., said: "I think it's kind of hypocritical for the university to be encouraging environmental awareness, but at the same time use so much coal to heat our buildings.  But then again, it is the cheapest option and there are a lot of buildings to heat on campus."

John Hoogakker, vice president for facilities at the university, said: "The university is currently completing a $6.7 million project that will simultaneously decrease fuel consumption at our central steam plant by approximately 15 percent and reduce regulated pollutants by approximately 25 percent. This major effort and investment demonstrates our commitment to utilize all three of our possible fuels as conscientiously as possible."

All fuels are considered pollutants when burned, Souleret said, but coal can be and is used in environmentally friendly processes at the university.

The new Lakeview dorm, set to begin housing students, starting in spring 2008, will be heated by state-of-the-art heating equipment steam using the university's central steam plant, Hoogakker said.

The university expects the U.S. Green Building Council will award the new dormitory with an LEED certification, he said.  It will confirm and document the efficiency with which energy will be consumed in the building's heating, he said.

In order to make heating as efficient as possible and conserve energy, Souleret said, the university's heat is connected through an energy management computer system that allows facilities to remotely control building temperatures through computers.  The current generation of the system has been in place for about 20 years, he said.

This system employs sensors in the buildings that evaluate the outside temperature and adjust the building's system accordingly, so that energy is not wasted and the inside temperature remains comfortable, he said.  It can also be set to start and stop temperature maintenance so that energy is not wasted when no one is in the building at night, but has heat ready by the time people need to be in the building the next morning, Souleret said.

If the main computer crashes, the whole system can still stay running because each building runs on its own panel, he said.  Errors in the system automatically send alerts to the main computers so they can be fixed and manual overrides in the system can also be performed if the need arises, he said.

Because the apartments are all on their own air systems, Souleret said, they can only ask students to set their thermostats lower when they're not in the apartment to save energy but have no way of checking on them.

"We don't need so much heat," Murdoch said.  "End of story.  I would love it if all the dorms, academic buildings and offices were colder."  But not all students agree with Murdoch's opinion.

Tim Courtney, a junior from Richmond, said he would not like the academic buildings to be colder.  Courtney wants the buildings to be warm so that he does not have to wear a jacket or heavy sweater, as he would when he was outside, he said.

Greater overall expense to heat homes and buildings is not the only reason people might be concerned about heating costs this winter.  Increased incidence of flu during the winter is another worry for people of all ages following the publication of a recent flu study.

Peter Palese, a professor and chairman of the microbiology department at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, came out with research that suggested the flu virus is more stable in cold, dry air, according to an article published in December by the New York Times.  This study furthers explanations as to why the virus is most prevalent during the winter when these conditions are most common.

Viruses remain in water droplets in the air, he said, but when there his high humidity, the droplets get too heavy and fall to the ground.  He observed positive correlations between low temperature and high occurrence of sickness while studying laboratory guinea pigs, he said, leading him to believe low temperatures support virus stability.

Palese began his research after reading papers that came out following the 1918 flu pandemic, he said.  His findings were published in the Public Library of Science Pathogens, a peer-reviewed open-access journal, on Oct. 19, 2007.

Dr. Lynne Deane at the student health center agreed that the flu is most common in the winter, she said, but believed this trend is due to cold temperatures driving people inside.

She said: "When it's 40 degrees outside, do you sit in your rocking chair on the front porch? No."

Evaluating the flu pandemic of 1918, she said the American troops could not build barracks fast enough for the soldiers who were fighting.  Instead, troops set up temporary tents and huddled around stoves and fires for warmth, she said, providing ideal conditions for spreading the sickness.

This is the same trend that leads to increased cases of flu during the winter, she said, because people seek warmth in buildings when temperatures are low outside.  Deane said she also believed the increased stress of exams also lowered the ability of students' immune systems to fight the virus.

"I usually get sick at least once during the winter," said Allison Peyton, a senior from Des Moines, Iowa, who lives in North Court.  "Although I can control my own thermostat in my single, it's usually cold because the whole dorm is connected."

Peyton was not sure whether she agreed with the recent study by Palese.  "I'm just not sure I know enough about the virus to really form an opinion on why it's more common," she said.

Souleret said the frequent disagreements among students about the right temperature for buildings might have been a result of a "Goldilocks effect," with some feeling it's too cold, some too hot and some just right.

The temperature problems depend on the building, senior Dean Dickos said.  Some buildings, such as the Robins Business School and Boatwright Memorial Library have many sections that were built at different times, so they're often different temperatures, he said.

"I would love to cut way back on heat and have people wear sweaters, but most standards suggest productivity would fall off," Souleret said.  Productivity is another factor that feeds into balancing the heating desires of everyone on campus and also preventing the spread of illness.

Although the university does suffer the effects of higher heating costs, plans are made years in advance for each season, Souleret said.

"Forecasting is the toughest part," he said.

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