Over the decades, the University of New Mexico has been a pioneer in sustainability and conservation, saving the finite resources of the earth, and ultimately utilizing tax payer dollars in the most efficient way possible. This has been accomplished through more than 40 years of conscientious energy savings programs and diligent sustainability awareness from the UNM community. This is part 1 of a series dedicated to telling the UNM sustainability and conservation story.

The UNM energy and resource conservation story doesn’t begin with the “green” movement that seemed to spring to life around the turn of the millennium, it began much earlier than that. During the oil crisis in the 1973, the nation began to consider the idea of conserving energy and using less. When the crisis hit, many large organizations, began to wonder what they could do to save money because energy costs soared, and resources weren’t available as they had been in the past. The Emergency Building Temperature Restrictions (EBTR) was first implemented on July 16, 1979 by the federal government which required all buildings to comply with temperatures of no warmer than 65 degrees in the winter and no cooler than 75 degrees in the summer. 

Months before the EBTR regulation was enforced, the utilities engineers at the University already began to think about how to reduce their energy bills. Most of the University campus was, and still is, powered through the use of the University’s district energy system (from the UNM power plant), with the remainder of the campus powered through local utilities from PNM. But, PNM prices were increasing at the time, and funding for the University utilities didn’t meet the needs of a growing campus. The utilities infrastructure was aging and upgrades were needed to keep up with the energy conservation movement. In April of 1979, the UNM Energy Conservation Program was born. Larry Schuster, energy conservation engineer at the time, began working with the staff to educate the UNM community about energy savings and things they could do to help the effort.

Energy cannot be restricted.

“We had direct control over the utilities, not the buildings, so we had to convince people to do what made sense, which was to turn off the lights,” said Schuster.

Schuster started with educating anyone who would listen about energy conservation and resource management, and the steps every person could take to help the effort. 

“My idea was a no-cost initiative, finding ways to meet the needs of our staff, students, and faculty, but at the same time reducing the amount of electricity and natural gas needed to operate the campus,” Schuster said.

Beyond education, Schuster began looking at the way the utilities operated in every building, finding ways to cut back on the energy usage.  He implemented a standard that said buildings could use either heating or cooling at one time, not both; an initiative that wasn’t very well received by the UNM community.

“Sometimes change is perceived as loss,” said Schuster.

But these efforts proved successful by saving tax payer dollars.  In the first year of the Energy Conservation Program, UNM had a 20 percent reduction in natural gas use and a 4 percent reduction in electrical use, which meant an overall cost avoidance of about $365,000 in 1979.   

The Energy Conservation Program was a success, but needed the momentum to continue to reduce use and gather support from every level of the administration at the University. Schuster began a marketing campaign, placing “turn off the lights” stickers on classroom and office light switches (which can still be spotted in some places), and had promotional posters created by the UNM Public Information Office to promote energy conservation awareness.

Break-A-Habit, Kill-A-Watt.

In 1983, UNM was able to gain the appropriate funding from the state legislature for a utility plant upgrade, converging the gas-powered utility plant and backpressure steam turbine generator, in order to meet the needs of the campus and have a back-up method for powering the campus if the need arose. This was an innovative step in providing the University more efficient and reliable utilities, saving energy and money. Because of this upgrade and the combined efforts of the UNM Energy Conservation Program, the University was awarded one of 50 national awards called the National Award Program for Energy Innovation, a prestigious recognition for the University in 1984.

Despite the efforts and successes of the early UNM Energy Conservation Program, it officially came to an end in 1985. This was primarily due to budget cuts and lack of funding to support the program. The budget cuts came from the perception that money was being saved through energy conservation, therefore budgets were cut. This decision proved to be detrimental to the continuation of the program. Even though the official program had ended, there were still many people committed to doing their part in conserving energy, and utilizing the state’s resources in the most efficient way possible.

Look for the next phase of UNM’s sustainability and conservation story in the coming weeks on the UNM Newsroom.