May Sustainability Champion

Mike Lerch - Energy Manager -

Associate Director of Facilities Services and Operation.

What does your job entail?

I’m the manager of energy and utilities I insure our electricity, natural gas, and sewer stormwater systems are operating properly. That we have the best procurement practices in place for buying those commodities, and monitoring how much we use to make sure that everything is under control. That’s the energy side of the equation. [With] the maintenance side of the equation, there’s always something that needs immediate attention because something went wrong, there is planning for upcoming Summer; how we’re going to go through all of the resident halls in what order and what we’re going to do each one of them. I also work with my leads who manage the [facilities] crew on a day-to-day basis to make sure they have the tools and parts they need to get their work done. I also do behind the scene work managing work-orders so it works better for our customers and ensures that we get the right work orders to the right people. It’s a very broad range of responsibilities, and trying to interact with all the customers to make sure they get what they need.

How does the master plan incorporate sustainability?

The master plan is an example of something I need to spend time on now so that the future is better. That’s a pretty big one in the sense that it’s going to affect the whole campus. I think the trade-off’s are harder to understand and balance. It’s not like a building that’s going to be ready in two or three years and you know what the technologies are to achieve it. You don’t really know what technologies are going to be available in 10 years of that 15 year master plan, so you try to make your best guess.

One example is the solar farm on campus that provides about 18% of our electricity on campus. We signed-up for a 20 year contract to get that. So if something comes up in year 15 that makes that solar installation obsolete, we’re going to miss out on that for 5 years. So the way I look at it, 18% [of one type of sustainable energy] is a nice number to lock in. I wouldn’t want to lock in 100% because in 15 years something better might come along.

How is facilities incorporating sustainability on campus?

We’re constantly trying to improve and do better. Between 2005 and 2008 we reduced roughly 20% of the natural gas and energy consumption of campus. In 2008 we had students assist [facilities] by going through the campus and creating an inventory of all the lighting technologies in all the buildings. We identified which lighting fixtures at the time weren’t as efficient as they could be and went back and retrofitted them to high efficiency fluorescent. Now we’re in 2016, and the best available technology is LED and it’s starting to become affordable. So we are starting to look at completing another audit.

We are also making progress on reducing water. The bulk of our water usage - about 50% - is from the residential halls, so we started looking at low flow aerators, low flow faucets, and changing the flush valves. Gradually, we have actually managed to put a stop on the growth of residential water consumption even though we’re housing more residents, the residential water consumption is now going down. It’s the same story with electricity and natural gas. All of the energy efficiency work that we’ve managed to do on an ongoing basis, we’re essentially supporting a campus that has twice as many students, and a fair amount more floor space with the same amount of energy we were using 10 years ago.

From a facilities perspective, all of the energy efficiency work that we did has not change anybody’s behavior. We just replaced old fixtures with more efficient alternatives. So to me, that’s why outreach plays an important part why I give presentations to classes. Facilities is supporting efficiency but individual behaviour change also plays a very important role. I just hope that some of it rubs off and has an effect.

How do you receive student suggestions around facilities - and how do you decide if and how to implement them?

Usually they find me, which is good because it means that they’re interested and engaged, rather than me chasing them around. It’s a bit of a self-supporting effort. I’ll get students who ask me for information on how much energy do the lights in this or that fixture of a resident hall use. And I can go back to that study that the other students did when they inventoried everything.

What is the biggest challenge in your position?

Allocating time to the right thing at the right time. We’re pretty thin management wise because my boss retired. There’s also managing the trade off’s between the end goal and the realities of how to get there. Evaluating technologies and saying, “this thing saves more energy but I can’t maintain it, therefore we shouldn’t take advantage of that improvement.” One thing that’s really tough around here is that the marine environment eats away at the metals. So on a campus-wide scale, we’re looking at a difference of millions of dollars between more efficient technologies on a 10 year replacement schedule versus and a 25 year replacement schedule. It’s hard trying to strike that balance.

If you had the power, what move would you make to significantly reduce energy consumption on campus?

We always have a list of the next things we should be looking at. It would be an acceleration of the list. More planning into long range infrastructure. Last master plan did a pretty good job at it. We may have to rethink some of infrastructure needs because the direction of the growth of our campus has shifted. Some of the ideas coming through the new master plan coupled with some of the new energy technologies mean we may have to evaluate to create a cohesive system.

Final Thoughts

I really likes it here, this is the most fun job I’ve ever had. Prior to coming here I worked in the industrial gas industry. I used to liquefy CO2 for coke from an oil plant, and it was very monotonous. I also really love all the people I get to engage with, especially the faculty like Dr. Kersner, and Dan Fernandez; I also really enjoy working with my team members Andy Sierra and Tony Cabeca in facilities.