How UT's Basketball Arena Slashed Its Energy Use

John Graham, director of UT's Frank Erwin Center.
John Graham, director of UT's Frank Erwin Center.

Five years ago, when energy prices soared, John Graham, the director of the University of Texas' basketball arena, went on a mission.

Fearful of skyrocketing bills, he badgered the university's utility department to install an electronic metering system to measure the use of electricity and other utilities in real time. After it was first installed in 2006, he found that the arena, the Frank Erwin Center, spent $3,500 in utilities — in a single day. He pasted the number into an all-staff e-mail.

"Everybody was shocked," Graham recalled during an interview in his Erwin Center office, which is cluttered with basketballs, photographs and other knickknacks. Instantly, they began turning off unnecessary lights and shutting down idle computers in the office area that abuts the basketball court. The next day, the bill dropped by about $1,000.

With basketball season just beginning this year (women played their first home exhibition game last week, while the men opened the season at home on Monday), the 33-year-old Erwin Center is a far more energy-conscious place than it was when Graham started his money-saving push. Between fiscal 2006-2007 and fiscal 2008-2009, the Erwin Center's electricity usage has dropped by 15.4 percent. Use of chilled water (for air-conditioning) is down by nearly 12 percent.

UT athletics officials say Graham's work has set an example for the entire department. About a year ago, all athletics staff members began getting a daily e-mail with a spreadsheet showing the use of electricity and other utilities in the stadium, tennis center and other buildings each day. The e-mail explains whether the day's figure came in over or under a baseline average.

 

"We said, 'Well, heck, if John can do it in his contiguous building, why can't we do it in all our various buildings and facilities,'" said Chris Plonsky, UT's director of women's athletics.

Between fiscal years 2008-2009 and 2009-2010, the athletics department's spending on electricity, steam and chilled water fell by nearly $259,500. 

Turning off lights and computers may be the most straightforward part of cutting energy consumption. Far trickier is trying to create savings when cooling or heating the arena — a vast open space with nearly 130-foot ceilings — while still keeping it comfortable for everyone.

It's been a learning process, Graham says. Whereas before, the cooling or heating process began about eight to 10 hours before a game, now the arena's staff starts adjusting the temperature as late as it can get away with — generally four to six hours before tip-off, depending on factors like number of ticket sales (i.e., number of warm bodies expected), the outdoor temperature, whether basketball practice is scheduled before a game and so on. As part of his energy-saving project, employees started flagging examples of waste, and Graham also discovered that some extraneous nooks and crannies of the Erwin Center were air-conditioned.

Graham has also tinkered with the air-conditioning in the administrative area. Before he went on his crusade, offices were being air-conditioned 24 hours a day. Graham cut it back to 12 hours: 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Other university athletics departments around Texas, under mounting pressure to "go green" and introduce energy-saving measures, have also instituted changes. Baylor University, home to the highest-ranked women's and men's basketball teams in Texas going into the season, has installed motion- and audible-sensing lighting in the offices and weight room of the basketball arena, the Ferrell Center, and is currently installing the same systems in the arena area itself. A new scoreboard, lit by energy-efficient light-emitting diodes, also has an automated on-off switch to prevent it from being left on when it is not needed, says Lori Fogleman, a university spokeswoman.

Graham, despite being a tall, imposing man himself, played only high school basketball. He received a master's degree in theater from the University of Illinois and has worked at UT for 20 years. By his own admission, he "didn't pay much attention" to utility bills before 2005, when natural gas prices were double what they are today. Now the challenge is somewhat different: After a few years of energy-saving efforts, the danger is that the excitement of being able to slash energy bills is wearing off. So Graham tries to keep his workers on their toes — with occasional seminars on lighting or related topics.

The Erwin Center is especially motivated to cut its electricity usage because it's responsible for its own budget, Graham says. That is unlike many other parts of the university, which get support from the state. (A few Erwin Center events — like graduations — do receive university-system funding, but most do not.)

 

There are some things Graham can't change. The theatrical lighting for the Erwin Center, for example, is hard to swap out because it needs special quick-dimming qualities. But lighting for basketball games has been changed: It used to be incandescent but is now more-efficient mercury-vapor.

Total utilities nowadays — including electricity, chilled water and steam (used for heating and hot water) — come to about $2,000 to $2,300 on a "dark" day, with few events going on, Graham says. A basketball game might add another $1,500, more if it's a double-header.

And while he would like to be able to cut water use in the way that he has cut energy use, he has far less control over that. Much of the water use is due to visitors flushing toilets and washing hands — and it would be foolhardy to tell them to do less of this. Nonetheless, Graham says he's begun getting daily information about the Erwin Center's water consumption; he believes water and wastewater use has gone up over time, but that "it's not as big an item as some of the other things." The Erwin Center's clean-water bill for Nov. 2, for example, was just $75.

For Graham, the biggest message is that the more information about the resources you are using — whether it's water, electricity, steam or anything else — the better.

"If you can't monitor it," he says, "there's no way to manage it."

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