American University’s Energy Supply Went 50 Percent Green Overnight

Vincent Harkins of American University discusses an innovative deal that will power the campus for the next 25 years and how he will achieve new project goals

A new dawn is rising for the energy supply at American University. On January 1, 2016, the Washington, DC-based university flipped the switch on a 20-year solar energy purchase from Duke Renewable Energy. The renewable energy commitment—in partnership with nearby George Washington University and George Washington University Hospital—will provide the school with 30,000 megawatt-hours of electricity from three newly built solar farms in North Carolina.

The solar project—the largest power purchase agreement in the United States when it was signed—is the result of three years of meetings between the partners, many of which initially focused on using wind power to meet the universities’ renewable energy goals, as well as consultant Customer First Renewables.

The meetings eventually revealed something unexpected: with tax credits, solar power would be more affordable than wind. On top of that, it could even meet or beat the prices for conventional energy sources.

“The power we’re buying costs the same or less than what brown power cost us,” says Vincent Harkins, assistant vice president of facilities management at American University. Harkins recently celebrated his fifth anniversary with the university, which he joined after spending nearly 20 years at Aramark.

The new energy source comes at a critical time for AU. The university just finished one major construction project—a new home for the Washington College of Law—and has two more on its plate: its new East Campus, which will place five new buildings on a former parking lot; and a new Life Sciences building, to meet the school’s renewed focus on science education. Combined, those three projects will add more than 1 million square feet to the university’s facilities—and to its energy consumption.


A Focus on Sustainability

“Energy is a big part of facilities management,” Harkins says. His team works on infrastructure—everything from chilled water lines to electric transformers to HVAC units. “I call it the non-sexy stuff,” he says. Sexy or not, it’s the stuff that makes the university run, even though most people never see it.

When Harkins first arrived at the university, he found a lack of focus on energy and the associated cost savings.

“The systems were all working, but everything was old and outdated,” he says.

To move things forward, he created an entire energy department and a new position for a director of energy and engineering, David Osborne. He also hired several certified energy managers, as well as a new director of facilities, Tony Hollinger, who has an engineering background.

“I did what I guess any leader would do,” he says. “You have to identify, hire, challenge, empower, and then retain that good talent.”

Harkins also set up an in-house commissioning program, which allowed his team to have a vital role in new construction projects. “We do not accept any building or system until it’s fully functional or fully tested,” he says. That’s a big change from previous projects where maintenance could spend up to three years after a building was completed to make sure everything inside it was truly working properly.

“The in-house commissioning has really been a program that has put us on the map,” he says. “It’s helped my facilities management group have some skin in the game as well as have some empowerment over what’s delivered.” It has also already saved the university an estimated $1.5 million over its last three major capital projects.


Zero Waste

Harkins says he sees himself as the “zero waste guy,” something that encompasses everything from trash, to composting, to energy usage.

It also includes maximizing the use of every dollar. One program he instituted changed the way the university buys its conventional energy. Instead of five-year, fixed-rate contracts, it now uses hour-by-hour projections and analysis to buy energy at the best rates possible.

“That’s saved us $2 million in two years,” he says.

American University has also instituted roughly 100 projects to reduce or maintain the university’s energy consumption levels. “We looked at the low-hanging fruit and everything else a high-efficiency organization looks at,” he says.

Most recently, the university installed electrical, thermal, and water meters in every single building to measure how much energy is being used, when people are in the building, and where energy is being wasted. “That will be a huge cost savings,” he says. “You don’t know what you can’t measure.”

The systems are already paying off. The day before Harkins spoke to us, the meters revealed that one of AU’s residence halls used twice as much water as all of the others. “Now we can figure that out and solve the problem,” he says.

All of this represents major progress towards AU president Neil Kerwin’s 2008 pledge, under the American Colleges and Universities Presidents’ Climate Commitment, to be carbon neutral by the year 2020.

“We’re almost there,” Harkins says. “We’re striving to be as close as possible.”


The Road Ahead: Breaking down recent and future projects at American University

Washington College of Law

Project Size: 500,000 sq. ft.

Project Timeline: Started May 31, 2013, moved in June 2015

Project Architect: SmithGroupJJR

Project General Contractor: Whiting-Turner

Estimated Cost: $130 million

East Campus

Project Size: 385,000 sq. ft.

Project Timeline: “Very aggressive,” opens fall 2016

Project Architect: Stantec

Project General Contractor: Skanska

Estimated Cost: $115 million

Life Sciences building

Project Size: 123,000 sq. ft.

Project Timeline: No timeline, still in design

Project Architect: Ballinger

Project General Contractor: Not yet named

Estimated Cost: $80 million