On Heating Energy, Midd Should Take Cues from Others


Every year, as the fall gives way to winter and temperatures drop, Middlebury College kicks up the heat in the buildings on campus, especially in the residence halls. While Middlebury students are privileged to have these toasty buildings as a haven to escape the cold, they are often forced to seek further refuge — this time from the heat — once they are inside. The combination of the college overheating the dorms and students’ inability to have full control over their thermostat settings leads individuals to open their windows to regulate the heat, generating a ridiculous amount of wasted energy.

Creating a comfortable indoor environment is an issue across campus, even in the newer buildings such as Ridgeline and the townhouses. Middlebury boasts carbon neutrality and claims to be “committed to environmental mindfulness and stewardship in all its activities … giving a high priority to integrating environmental awareness and responsibility into the daily life of the institution.” A college with such environmental prowess should have no problem addressing something so simple as heating its residence halls efficiently, right? You would think so.

It seems that Middlebury sees this as a simple problem with an easy solution: post a color-coded guide online and around campus to show students how to beat the heat (and cold) of their dorm rooms.

But often, instead of following protocol, students seeking an immediate change in their rooms open the windows sometimes without adjusting their thermostats. Furthermore, students have reported that even with their thermostat on the lowest setting, they still experience overheating. So, is the problem that the “solution” (if you can even call it that) offered by the how-to guide is too simple, too dumbed down? Even if it is effective to a certain extent, is there more Middlebury can do to improve the efficiency of campus heating?

Middlebury could learn from the initiatives at Kenyon College, a small, private liberal arts college in Ohio, very similar in campus structure, student body and climate. Like Middlebury students, those at Kenyon had very limited control over the thermal settings in their rooms, causing uncomfortably warm inside temperatures. In an attempt to solve this issue, students used to leave their windows open throughout the winter. A 2012 energy audit performed in Kenyon’s residence halls confirmed that this resulted in higher costs and wasted energy for the college.

To improve student comfort and increase energy efficiency, Kenyon College retrofitted six residence halls with wireless energy management technology from Magnum Energy Solutions that included smart thermostats, occupancy sensors and window sensors that automate HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) in the dorms. When students open their windows, the technology sends a wireless signal to the smart thermostat, automatically turning off the HVAC system. Additionally, when students leave their rooms, the thermostat receives a signal from the occupancy sensor and automatically sets the HVAC to eco-savings mode. The software also allows the college’s facilities team to remotely configure and control the system, while providing data on the school’s energy consumption in real time. Most importantly, students have embraced the system as it saves energy and gives them more control over their own comfort.

So, Kenyon found an effective solution to this issue — great! But doesn’t it sound disruptive and costly? Not so, according to Ed Neal, sustainability director at Kenyon who said, “The operation of the system is simple and straightforward, and the installation didn’t impact regular operations at all.” And though it can be pricey to implement — Kenyon’s project cost a whopping $7 million — over the long term, the payback in energy savings will fully offset the costs.

There are also different avenues to finance the retrofit that Middlebury could consider. One option is through an Energy Services Agreement (ESA), a pay-for-performance solution that requires no up-front capital. This means that Middlebury would pay back the costs through energy savings realized on utility bills once the retrofit is complete. Metrus Energy, which happens to be the brainchild of a Middlebury alumnus, is one such company that could finance this type of project through a performance-based contract.

Middlebury’s Thermal Comfort Policy claims to “ensure the comfort of students, faculty and staff while minimizing the environmental impact of heating and cooling systems.” However, the college cannot rightly claim this while the issues of overheating the buildings and wasting energy through open windows continue. Middlebury maintains that sustainability, energy efficiency and environmental stability are integral parts of its current operations and its growth. But in order for these values to truly be pillars of the institution, Middlebury must learn to effectively control the climate within the dorms.