UC Merced tour has energy officials seeing green

UC Merced’s gray and tan buildings were described as green during a tour of the college. A 2 million-gallon storage tank on campus, clearly the color of steel, was also called green. And green was the hue given to the university’s lighting system.

UC Merced facility planners were not going color-blind on Tuesday as they led a group from the California Institute for Energy and the Environment (CIEE). The group, which works for the entire University of California system, was there to see green.

And to them, green was defined by the conservation of energy.

Audio: Listen to part of the tour.

The Valley’s heat can drain dollars for energy to cool down institutions the size of a college. And the chill of winter is no help either — that’s when the heating bills go up. Add lighting to the equation, and a building’s use of resources can skyrocket.

All of this was taken under serious consideration during UC Merced’s construction, said John Elliott, campus energy manager of facilities. Managers studied the levels of energy used at other UC and California State University campuses, and then made it a goal to use half that much at Merced.

While the campus is a couple years away from using half the energy other campuses use, it’s getting close, Elliot said. It has already reached its goal for certain peak-usage points of the day. But most buildings are at 20 percent overall. One of the main ways the school saves energy is through its cooling and heating system.

The CIEE tour made a long stop at the campus’ central plant and its thermal energy storage tank, which holds 2 million gallons of water. The water is chilled to 39 degrees each evening and circulated through an underground line that extends to each campus building, explained Sajid Mian, associate director of facilities. Fans blow as water circulates through the coils, cooling each room without the standard air conditioning system. “We’re just running a fan,” said Mark Maxwell, campus sustainability coordinator, adding that the water is chilled at night, when less energy is being used in other areas of the university.

The campus also has large natural gas boilers that heat the water, which is sent out to heat classrooms and offices, Elliot said.

“The same water is being used over and over — unless there’s a leak,” Mian said.This isn’t the only way UC Merced stays cool. The campus was built with shaded walkways and building overhangs that keep students and teachers from sweating when the sun beats down.

Classrooms and community areas were designed to let light in and keep heat out, Elliot said. Builders used high-performance glass that allows the sun to bounce off the windows, giving off more light than warmth. “These buildings are not really exotic — you see some green buildings that look exotic,” Elliot said. “But they are good, sensible designs.”

Making use of natural light helps cut down these structures’ energy usage. Tuesday’s tour stopped at the school’s Kolligian Library so university librarian Bruce Miller could show off the space. “It’s designed for light everywhere,” he enthused, standing on the main floor where students read books and socialize. “Everywhere you can see outside. Let light in, let bad energy out and so forth.”

But a school needs more than natural lighting. While sending electricity to classrooms and offices is unavoidable, this need can be controlled. All lighting is scheduled, Elliot said. “We do several things, like putting the building to sleep at night.”

The university also set up its lights with occupancy sensors. If no one is moving for an extended period of time in a room, lights shut off. Those careless with leaving their light switches on when they go home at night will not waste as much energy. Gerry Braun, director of renewables for CIEE, attended this Tuesday “green” tour of UC Merced. “The distributed control of energy use is starting from the right point,” he said. “It gives tremendous opportunity to do more.”

The tour ended with a presentation by UC Merced engineering professor Martha Conklin. CIEE is helping to manage the funding for her study on the Merced River’s water supply and how it can be affected by climate change.

CIEE is part of the UC systemwide headquarters — the Office of the President. It manages research funding that studies ways to tackle energy problems. It also helps to plan university campuses, as it did for UC Merced.

Karl Brown, deputy director of CIEE, worked closely with UC Merced for seven years to find ways to make the new campus sustainable. Now that the university is up and running, he is helping management evaluate its energy efficiency. “The numbers are becoming meaningful now that the buildings are becoming occupied,” he said. “Our initial measurements are promising, we are ahead of our goals.”

Each year CIEE — which has offices in Oakland and Sacramento — holds a meeting to connect with all of its staff. The meeting spot varies annually, and this year UC Merced was chosen. The campus tour wrapped up this meeting. “This year the Merced campus was a great venue — there was a lot of interest in seeing what we were involved in,” Brown said.

And what kind of energy was put into it.

Reporter Dhyana Levey can be reached at 209-385-2472 or