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Energy FAQs

How much electricity does Vanderbilt consume?

In 2012, Vanderbilt consumed over 392,000 megawatt-hours of electricity. That is the same amount of electricity consumed by almost 25,000 homes in the Nashville area last year1.

Vanderbilt University spends approximately $37 million per year on energy consumption.

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Where does Vanderbilt’s electricity come from?

23% of the electricity consumed by Vanderbilt is generated at the on-campus, co-generation power plant fueled by 100% natural gas (read more about the conversion of the power plant here). The power plant also produces 100% of our steam servicing 12 million square feet of building space. This steam is then used for 90% of campus heating, sterilization, and 40% of campus cooling.

The Power Plant is a co–generation facility which is one of the most environmentally friendly types of power plants. For further details on power generation at Vanderbilt, please view this presentation.

The remaining 77% of electricity consumed at Vanderbilt is purchased directly from Nashville Electric Service from Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). TVA generates power at coal–fired power plants, nuclear power plants, and at hydroelectric dams. The main source of power generation for TVA is coal–fired power plants (44%), followed by nuclear (38%), natural gas (9%), and hydroelectric (9%)2. Less than 1% of TVA’s power comes from renewable energy resources2. Vanderbilt purchases a small amount of this renewable energy through TVA’s Green Power Switch Program.

…the unit cost of electricity has been reduced at Vanderbilt by over 30% since 1988?

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What is co-generation and how does it work?

The Power Plant generates electricity by burning 100% natural gas. The Power Plant also produces steam and chilled water during the electricity generation process. The Power Plant is considered a “Combined Heat and Power” (CHP) facility because of this co-generation of electricity, steam, and chilled water.

Co-generation harnesses exhaust heat, which would otherwise be a wasted byproduct of electricity generation, to produce steam and hot water. The steam can be used to produce more electricity without burning additional fuel (and adding more harmful emissions). The steam can also be used to chill water, or the steam can be sent directly to a building.

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Why does Vanderbilt have a co-generation plant?

Most large universities generate their own power in some fashion, and have done so for many decades. Vanderbilt is no exception. Vanderbilt University pre–dates the large power generation infrastructure that we are familiar with today (and often referred to as “the grid”, so from a historical perspective, Vanderbilt first generated its own power out of necessity.

A popular method of power generation at college campuses is Combined Heat and Power (CHP), and CHP has a long history at Vanderbilt. There is a plaque on the exterior wall of the older portion of Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Management (OGSM) that testifies to the cogeneration of power in the late 1800’s at Vanderbilt in that historic facility which was Vandy’s original power plant.

Click here to see a larger version of this plaque. The first CHP facility at Vanderbilt was built in 1888, when Landon C. Garland was Chancellor of Vanderbilt.

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How are buildings heated at Vanderbilt?

Some buildings at Vanderbilt are heated by steam, while others are heated by natural gas. A few buildings at Vanderbilt rely on electric heaters for supplemental heat or space heating for rooms used intermittently.

Steam heat at Peabody's Iris Cafe


Steam is delivered to buildings through pressurized steam pipes. Electric–powered pumps are used to maintain the pressure in the steam pipes and “push” steam to a building. Increasing the demand for heat in a building provided with steam heat increases the amount of fuel the Power House has to consume to provide steam.

Regardless of a building’s heat source, all buildings at Vanderbilt use electric–powered ventilation systems to move heated air around the building. Increasing the demand for warm air increases the amount of energy the ventilation system has to consume.

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How are buildings cooled at Vanderbilt?

One of Vanderbilt's many water-chilling units

Some buildings at Vanderbilt are cooled using chilled water, while others are cooled using electric–powered air conditioning systems. Some buildings at Vanderbilt rely on both chilled water and electric–powered air conditioning systems for cooling.

Chilled water is delivered to buildings through pressurized chilled water pipes. Electric–powered pumps are used to maintain the pressure in the water pipes and “push” chilled water to a building.

Large “chillers” located throughout Vanderbilt’s campus and Vanderbilt University Medical Center cool water before it is delivered to buildings. Some chillers run entirely on electricity, while others use a combination of steam and electricity to cool the water. Increasing the demand for cool air can increase the amount of energy the chillers have to consume to provide chilled water.

Regardless of the cooling source, all buildings at Vanderbilt use electric–powered ventilation systems to move cool air around the building. Increasing the demand for cool air increases the amount of energy the ventilation system has to consume.

Electric-powered air conditioning units outside of Cohen Hall (left). Most electric-powered air conditioning units are located on rooftops (right).

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What are the benefits of co-generation?

CHP is a highly efficient way to generate and distribute energy, with more than twice the efficiency of a standard fossil fuel electricity generation facility3.

Fewer emissions and environmental impact are associated with CHP when compared to a standard fossil fuel electricity generation facility as well4.

Vanderbilt's power distribution yard on 24th avenue south

Furthermore, Vanderbilt’s electrical distribution system is highly efficient. By managing our own electrical lines and minimizing the amount of power lost during distribution, Vanderbilt consumes less fuel and reduces the need to produce more emissions.

If Vanderbilt did not have CHP capabilities, the buildings and Vanderbilt would have to be connected to the high-cost/direct–electric service grid managed by Nashville Electric Service (NES), and Vanderbilt’s ability to produce chilled water and steam would be severely limited. Because of the flexibility provided by CHP, the unit cost of electricity has been reduced at Vanderbilt by over 30% since 1988.

Overall, CHP is ideal for compact communities that operate around the clock, every day of the year5, like a university campus. Vanderbilt University and Vanderbilt University Medical Center need a reliable energy source to meet its primary missions of education, research, and patient care. Click here to learn more about Vanderbilt’s CHP facility.

CHP can slash energy costs and harmful emissions.  Click here to read more.

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What happens to the coal ash generated at the Power Plant?

Coal ash is a byproduct of burning coal.  Improper storage can lead to the release of toxins into the environment.  Coal ash generated at Vanderbilt’s Power House is not kept on campus.  Instead, it is shipped to a cement manufacturer where it is used as a binding agent in cement mix.

Click here to read an article from InsideVandy about the power plant.

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What is an energy curtailment?

A curtailment is a reduction in the amount of electricity provided to Vanderbilt by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). The contract between TVA and Vanderbilt allows TVA to periodically limit the amount of electricity sent to Vanderbilt.  TVA curtailments usually occur during times of peak energy demand, specifically during hot summer months.

Because the on–campus Power Plant cannot meet 100% of Vanderbilt’s electricity demands, a TVA curtailment during hot summer months poses a significant challenge to Vanderbilt as an institution: how can we satisfy our internal demand for more electricity and cooling during hot summer months?

For this reason, energy curtailment notices are sent throughout the university and Medical Center. The ThinkOne Energy Campaign is designed to lead Vanderbilt’s “charge” towards energy conservation, not only during curtailment periods, but that be used throughout the year.

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What is the relationship between an energy curtailment and an Air Quality Alert?

Energy curtailments during hot summer months usually coincide with Air Quality Alerts; another strong reason to reduce energy consumption at Vanderbilt. Air Quality Alerts are issued by Nashville’s Public Health Department. Middle Tennessee had 19 ‘bad air’ days in the summer of 2012.

Click Here for more information on Tennessee’s air quality during ozone season (April – September).

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How does a typical university use its energy?

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How much money will Vanderbilt save through energy conservation?

While there is no guarantee that Vanderbilt’s expenditures will decrease due to energy conservation, we can help “cushion the blow” of future price increases by consuming less energy. Example: in 2005, Harvard’s energy conservation program saved the university $1.5 million. However, Harvard’s overall energy bill still went up by $7 million due to the instability of the energy market (partially caused by Hurricanes Rita and Katrina)7. Price fluctuations can severely impact the energy budget of any university, including Vanderbilt.

Six of the ten top coal-producing states in the U.S. are within 300 miles of Nashville. (8)


How much natural gas does Vanderbilt consume?

In 2012, buildings at Vanderbilt directly consumed over 85 million cubic feet of natural gas. This does not include natural gas consumed at the Power Plant by the CHP facility. Natural gas is supplied to Vanderbilt by Piedmont Natural Gas.

How much is 85 million cubic feet of natural gas?  That’s enough gas to fill the Goodyear Blimp over 420 times9, or enough gas to fill the MetroDome in Minnesota !10

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References for Energy FAQs

1 Nashville Electric Service web page “Residential Rates”, 2013.
2 Tennessee Valley Authority Annual Report to the Securities and Exchange Commission, November 2012.
3 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) web page “Combined heat and Power Partnership: Efficiency Benefits”, 06/05/08.
4 USEPA web page “Combined Heat and Power Partnership: Environmental Benefits”, 06/05/08.
5 USEPA, CHP Project Development Handbook, 06/20/08.
6 U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Office, Building Technologies Program. “University Buildings”, 01/27/06.
7 Harvard University, Campus Energy Reduction Campaign web page, 2007.
8 The National Energy Education Development Project, U.S. Energy Geography, 2007.
9 Los Angeles Almanac, 2008.
10 About The Metrodome, 2007.