Written by Morgan Jeitler.
Graphic by Quynhmai Tran.

UT prides themselves on their use of energy. Their sustainability website explicitly states that UT Austin “continues to lead among universities by reducing waste, conserving energy and water resources…” and follows immediately with a list of awards and achievements garnered by the university over time. They’re right in priding themselves on massive accomplishments, such as being designated the first PEER: Campus in the world, adopting the Sustainability Master Plan, and maintaining fuel consumption at the 1977 levels—despite the campus doubling in gross building space. However, sustainability is more than this; it’s more than the conglomeration of massive improvements from a time before sustainability was an urgent issue. Sustainability is dependent on our daily habits to decrease the waste we produce and the energy we consume, including UT’s excessive use of air conditioning on campus.

UT’s energy system operates independently from Austin and therefore has its own separate responsibility from Austin to improve efficiency and reduce energy waste. However, in some ways, UT is failing in this—often, whenever I walk into a campus building, I’m shocked by how unnecessarily cold the rooms are kept. This needs to change, and those at the Sustainability office agree. Kristin Elise Phillips, the communication coordinator for the office of Sustainability, stated in an email her belief that “controlling air conditioning is one of the more effective ways to reduce energy use and save money.” By including air conditioning as a facet of improving sustainability, we can continue to improve efficiency and decrease fossil fuel emissions on campus.

The air conditioning system on campus functions as part of UT’s broader system—the Carl J. Eckhardt Combined Heating and Power Plant. This plant provides “most of the energy for UT’s campus and 100% of electricity and heating” by using natural gas. For example, at UT, air conditioning is produced by cooling water to 40˚F, pumping it to campus buildings, and then blowing air over the cold water to cool the air. Although they generate 4,568,000 tons of CO2 (equivalent to 45,837 cars on the road) each year, they’ve saved 862,000 tons of CO2 by improving efficiency. The Eckhardt Plant has decreased fossil fuel emissions remarkably, but UT could be doing more to continuously reduce energy usage and the burning of natural gas by working on small energy factors, like the air conditioning on campus.

Although building temperatures may appear as a minor issue, it’s important to focus on the aspects of sustainability we have control over. I spoke with Roberto del Real, the associate director for Energy Management and Optimization, about temperature settings on campus. He said that while “the recommendation [for buildings on campus] is to keep the temperature in the 70-74 degree range, if a building manager [or a student] believes temperatures to be outside an acceptable comfortable range, she/he/they can submit a work order request through the Facilities Service Center.” Thus, some buildings on campus are not kept within this range, likely because someone requested otherwise. 

Because I, like many other students, have often noted a drastic difference in temperature walking out of the Texas heat and into cool campus buildings, I decided to personally check the temperatures in one of the coldest buildings on campus—the union. I found that the temperatures ranged from 63-67 degrees. That’s not too significant a difference, but when it comes to consistent energy usage, the little amounts add up. Furthermore, The Liberator’s Editor-in-Chief, Allison McCarty, pointed out a door in UT’s main building—next to the Peter T. Flawn Academic Center (FAC) that is consistently kept open, wasting energy by allowing cool air to seep out. Although staff members like Roberto del Real—who also mentioned that “UT Austin has over 50 buildings on an HVAC schedule, [allowing] them to use less energy during unoccupied times,”—are working diligently to reduce energy waste, there’s only so much they can do alone.

The Energy Management and Optimization team has done great work improving UT’s energy efficiency, but at the end of the day, it becomes our responsibility, as students and faculty members, to follow their recommendations. Particularly when it comes to air conditioning temperatures, building managers and students should follow the guidelines set by UT’s energy department to maximize efficiency. Although seemingly a small issue on a grand scale, these issues add up and are factors that we, as students, have control over when it comes to our campus and the sustainability of our environment.

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