Undergraduates living on campus saved twice as much energy as administrators expected last year, enabling the University to purchase renewable wind energy certificates that will help reduce nation-wide greenhouse gas emissions.

The University challenged Yale College students to reduce energy consumption by 15 percent over three years, but in the first year alone students lowered energy consumption by 10 percent. A 15 percent reduction remains a goal for the next two years, but administrators and conservation activists on campus cautioned that last year’s surprisingly strong performance may not be repeatable.

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The 15 percent conservation goal is one part of a larger plan to improve the University’s energy efficiency. Last October, University President Richard Levin unveiled a sweeping 15-year plan to cut emissions 10 percent from 1990 levels by 2020. Energy Manager Tom Downing said he had expected a five percent reduction from 2004 levels each year for three years, but the 2005-06 academic year saw a 10.2 percent drop in energy use.

“We were surprised — delighted, actually,” Downing said.

While the electricity flowing to sockets on campus remains local, Yale administrators subsidized 10,000 megawatt hours, or MWh, of energy through the Oklahoma Wind Energy Center to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This power is equivalent to two-thirds of the electricity used by the residential colleges last year, Downing said. The Oklahoma wind power is replacing energy from coal power plants in the power grid there, a source of energy that is common around the country and that produces more emissions than the oil-fired plants Yale relies on, he said.

But this 10,000 MWh of electricity represents only a small portion of Yale’s total energy costs. In the 2004 fiscal year — the last year for which such statistics are available — Yale bought and produced more than 200,000 MWh of electricity.

The renewable energy credits cost more than the savings from Yale’s energy reduction last year, Downing said. The certificates were purchased for $22,500 from Sterling Planet, a national provider of clean energy, Associate Director of Utilities Sam Olmstead said.

“[Renewable energy is] going to cost us, but it’s a great feather in the University’s cap,” Downing said. “It’s more of an investment than a cost.”

Administrators solicited bids from renewable energy providers last year, said Julie Newman, director of the Office of Sustainability. She said the office will continue to purchase renewable energy certificates as long as students continue to consume less energy, and it is examining ways to support renewable energy within the state or region.

But Newman said the University does not plan to become dependent on off-site renewable energy sources.

“The nice part about having a long-term commitment [to reducing emissions] is we can be patient with technology and take the time to optimize our systems and examine behavioral changes,” she said.

Downing said the University will maintain its current three year goal. Both Downing and Newman said they are optimistic that the 15 percent goal will be reached a year ahead of schedule, though Downing said that would be “a challenge.”

Both administrators and students said they doubt the rate of reduction will continue at its current pace.

Neil Parikh ’08, a Branford College coordinator for the Student Taskforce for Environmental Partnership, said he does not expect the 15 percent goal to be met this year.

“I think it will take this year and next year,” he said. “The first 10 percent were easier than the last five. You can replace lightbulbs with CFL’s, but after that it has to be behavior changes like turning off lights when you leave the room.”

STEP co-director Alice Shyy ’08 said the organization plans to continue its lightbulb exchange program and “Yale Unplugged” program, which encourages students to turn off appliances over breaks. She said the unplugged program was a large part of last year’s success.

Shyy said STEP members are also talking with college masters about turning down heat in the residential colleges to save energy. Heating is a larger portion of Yale’s total energy costs than electricity, STEP co-director Meg Howard ’08 said. Shyy said Calhoun may pilot a program to reduce room temperatures this winter.

In the long-term, Newman said, the goal of reducing energy consumption will extend to academic buildings and the professional schools. Currently, she said, only the forestry school offsets its emissions with renewable energy certificates.