Students ‘Envision Charlotte’ as an energy efficiency leader

In the last two years, many commercial building operators in Charlotte, N.C. have seen reduced costs and energy consumption as a result of partnering with engineering students from their local university. They’re showing how basic energy-saving practices can save energy and money, while students are learning skills for a career in sustainable development practices.

The unique partnership between Envision Charlotte and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNC Charlotte), supported by Department of Energy funding, is shaking the assumption that energy and cost savings can only result from lofty investments and proving that existing buildings can benefit from operations improvements and low-cost efficiency upgrades.

Envision Charlotte managed the initiative and leveraged partnerships from previous public-private partnerships in Charlotte. Envision Charlotte executive director Amy Aussieker pointed to the expertise brought to the table by each partner, “If you are going to focus on energy, the universities are some of the most underused assets cities have. You have a wealth of information there, plus you have an opportunity to bring in the students who will be your future workforces and give them the chance to work with businesses on real-life projects.”

The students reviewed building operations as part of a project-based course in energy data analytics. Their recommendations for room temperature and equipment settings resulted in year-over-year monthly savings of 30 percent in some cases.

Changes in four buildings at Flagship Healthcare Properties, resulted in $7,300 in savings every month. Dan Maples, director of engineering, said he once believed that energy efficiency would cost the building more but was surprised to find much money was actually saved. Moreover, the students’ free analysis was more effective than that of professionals already reviewing preventative maintenance contracts. Moving forward, Maples said he will continue the partnership with UNC Charlotte and pay an annual fee to provide analysis on all of his 107 buildings.

Even in buildings where energy efficiency is already an identified priority, students have proposed improvements building managers may not have considered. The students found machinery running when it wasn’t scheduled to run and equipment that was overridden or manually left on. Their recommendations provided what Lee Biggerstaff, chief engineer at Foundry Commercial, called a huge benefit, with little effort or funding needed to correct the problem. He continues to use the recommendations.

The students’ work also led to training workshops for local building operators, allowing these solutions to reach beyond the 61 buildings originally involved in the direct analysis.

The partnership also pays off for the students. Building managers are cooperative, and students don’t wait long to see their ideas at work. Former student Nat Lawless said his report on a four-story commercial office building was very well received. “Directly after the meeting, I went with the maintenance staff to implement some of the recommendations,” he said.

The students also receive real-world experience to help them find jobs after graduation. Participant David Davis recalled that his current employer was surprised by his level of knowledge when he interviewed. Another former student, Thiara Ortiz, said the program helps her do her job better because it encouraged her to think about the downstream impacts of potential changes.

With all that practical experience, the students are headed into a booming green building market, anticipated to be among the fastest-growing industries worldwide. The U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program had certified a cumulative total of more than 65,000 projects by 2017, up from 296 in 2006 to according to Statista, a leading provider of market and consumer data.

The university benefits from the collaboration as well. UNC Charlotte associate professor Robert Cox, the course instructor, pointed to lessons on the “incredible significance of the human element in achieving sustainability and climate change goals.” UNC Charlotte is now deepening relationships with behavioral scientists for their research. To effectively achieve significant energy savings, “we need to train building operators and teach them how easy it is to find savings.”

The key to success, Cox emphasized, was engaging the right stakeholders and finding property management teams that wanted to learn. The partnership distributed resources and knowledge to mutually benefit each of the participating parties, resulting in reduced energy consumption, lower costs, and practical career training. With the rise in demand for sustainable buildings, the work of Envision Charlotte and UNC Charlotte shows great opportunity to replicate the successful partnership.