Building Energy Supply and Demand

“New York City has over one million buildings that make up more than five billion square feet of built area. More than 90 percent of these buildings will still exist in 2050. The energy used in the city’s diverse building stock is the largest contributor of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, responsible for 68 percent of the citywide total in 2014.” (New York City’s Roadmap to 80x50, p. 54)

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Columbia University has made GHG emissions reductions and energy efficiency central to its first Sustainability Plan in response to international, national, state, and local calls for action. As a leading University in one of the most forward-looking cities in America, Columbia advocates for the United States’ continued support of the Paris Climate Agreement, signed in December 2015. Columbia is registered as a participant at the “Leader” level in the State of New York’s REV Campus Challenge and will benefit from New York State’s new Clean Energy Standard that mandates its energy will be sourced from 50 percent renewable sources by 2030. As a member of the New York City Mayoral Carbon Challenge since 2006, Columbia aims to align with New York City’s commitment to reduce emissions by 80 percent by 2050 from a 2005 baseline.

The focus team that led the research for this section of the Plan during the planning process identified the emergence of an industry best practice to support GHG reduction goals. Many of Columbia’s peer institutions use a common framework for their short- and long-term planning. There are two parts to this best practice. The first is the development of a systematic and integrated approach to account for both energy needs and the emissions resulting from its energy use. The second is a unique financial mechanism—that sometimes sits outside the regular departmental budgeting process—that enables Universities to invest large amounts in the short term so they can save larger amounts in the long term. The goal and strategies outlined below aim to support an institutionalized framework at Columbia to better account for its energy use, and to have a financial mechanism to drive energy reduction programs on campus.

In 2007 Columbia University was one the first universities in New York City to sign on to then Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC Mayor's Carbon Challenge for Higher Education, designed to promote an aggressive GHG reduction goal of 30 percent over a 10-year period, concluding in 2017.

The complicated solutions and inherent challenges in meeting the diverse and demanding utility needs of a 120-year-old campus spread across 36 acres and covering more than 250 buildings. More than 13 million square feet are managed by the engineers and professionals in Facilities and Operations responsible for this critical part of supporting a leading research university. The team has addressed campus energy efficiency by taking a highly disciplined approach based on best practices and decades of collective experience. Energy efficiency improvements have resulted in significantly lower campus GHG emissions (Scope 1 and 2) as well as operational cost savings.

NYC Clean Heat

NYC Clean Heat was created by the City of New York in 2012 to address the public health hazard presented by heavy heating oil emissions. Between 2012 and 2015, NYC Clean Heat resulted in nearly 6,000 heating oil conversions from No. 6 or No. 4 oil to a cleaner, lower sulfur fuel. As a result, particulate matter (PM) 2.5 emissions from buildings previously burning these heavy heating oils have been reduced by 65 percent since 2011. Columbia University is the single-largest entity participating in the NYC Clean Heat program and initiated a nearly five-year process, in concert with our local utility Con Edison and the City of New York, to convert all of its residential buildings from distillate fuel oils to natural gas as the primary fuel source for heat and hot water. In all, 87 burners serving 113 residential buildings were converted as part of the project. This transition from reliance on heavy heating oil—as well as the reduced use of oil delivery trucks—is responsible for reducing the University’s GHG emissions, creating more efficient and reliable source heating, and improving air quality in our community.

Results: 7,236 metric tons of CO2e reduced annually

Chiller Plant Renewal and Optimization

As a major research institution, Columbia requires economical and reliable air conditioning on a 24-hour basis for a great number of its Morningside campus buildings. In order to meet the ever-growing cooling demands, the Facilities and Engineering teams dedicated significant capital investment to undertake a major expansion of its original Powerhouse—the central cooling plant on the Morningside campus.

The Powerhouse, which measures approximately 12,000 square feet, was renovated and received two new, ultra-energy-efficient chillers. One of the 2,800-ton chillers is driven by a steam turbine and the other chiller is an electric centrifugal. The flexibility to draw on either steam or electric power reduces stress on the electrical grid during the summer months, and allows the University to respond to changing energy costs and demand year-round.

Together these new refrigeration machines provide an additional 5,600 tons of cooling to the Morningside campus, which represents roughly half of the cooling capacity required to meet peak demand for the campus. They also produce chilled water 25 to 30 percent more efficiently, reducing the consumption of fossil fuels, GHG emissions, and energy costs. In addition to the upgraded Powerhouse and new chillers, older chillers that were previously scattered across the Morningside campus are now centralized within the University's renovated Powerhouse.

Working with Con Edison's Green Team, Columbia executed an initiative to optimize the production of chilled water in the central chilled water system. This resulted in significant annual energy cost savings and an energy efficiency incentive check for $469,000 as a result of measured and verified energy savings through the Commercial & Industrial Energy Efficiency Program to offset part of the project's capital investment.

The upgrade has resulted in a reduction of electricity usage at Columbia's Morningside campus by 3.5 million kWh/year, and the University achieved payback on the investment in just over two years. The project, a key part of Columbia's ambitious campaign to reduce its energy consumption, consisted of installing a comprehensive network of controls, metering, hardware, programming software, and other upgrades to the district energy system.

Results: 1,479 metric tons of CO2e reduced annually

Building Energy Dashboard

A partnership between University Housing, Environmental Stewardship, and Facilities and Operations saw the installation of an online real-time energy dashboard in 2015. The first phase of this project has enabled students in undergraduate residential housing to go online and trend their energy consumption over time, and students participate in an annual energy challenge to highlight the impact that behavior change has to reduce energy demand on campus.

Building Energy Audits

In complying with New York City Local Law 87, which requires that buildings over 50,000 gross square feet undergo periodic energy audits and a review to make sure equipment is installed and operating correctly (a process known as retro-commissioning), Facilities has been advancing work for the buildings on campus impacted by the law while making recommendations for additional energy-saving measures in those buildings and other academic buildings.

In total, 104 Columbia buildings are impacted by this law.

Columbia is fully compliant with applicable energy efficiency requirements where audits have been completed and reports submitted on the resulting work that has been done. While funding is being secured to complete the audits in the remaining buildings to put them into compliance, the City has granted Columbia extensions and Columbia is paying annual fees to the extent required.

The reports recommend a variety of work be implemented in the buildings, including installing energy meters for electricity, chilled water, steam, and domestic water for 30 academic buildings. Metering allows for a collection of energy data to inform decisions, which will help support the work of a new committee on sustainability that Columbia has formed. On the Morningside campus, in excess of 150 meters have been installed to date.

Once implemented, select energy audit and reduction measures are anticipated to reduce GHG emissions by 7,618 metric tons of CO2e.

Community Recognition

The Columbia University Central Chilled Water Plant Improvement case study was published by District Energy magazine and featured as its cover article in the fourth quarter of 2015.

In 2016, the New York City Chapter of the Association of Energy Engineers (AEE) selected Columbia University as the winner of the Corporate Energy Management of the Year Award. Columbia’s application has since been submitted to the Regional and International levels of the AEE for further recognition.

Summary of Results

  • Over the past 10 years (2006 Baseline), Columbia University has reduced gross energy consumption by 4 percent while growing square footage by 8 percent
  • Absolute carbon emissions have been reduced by 29 percent, or 42,087 metric tons
  • Total MMBtu reduction annually (FY 2006 vs. CY 2016) is 92,973 MMBtu
  • Over the same timeframe, the University grew its square footage by 972,047 SF
  • Energy Intensity, expressed as MMBtu/SF, has been reduced by 11 percent
  • Carbon Intensity, for the purpose of the NYC Carbon Challenge, expressed as CO2e/SF, has been reduced by 25 percent

Outlined below are the goals and corresponding strategies for the Morningside campus.


  • Reduce absolute Scope 1 and Scope 2 GHG emissions from stationary combustion and purchased electricity as calculated in FY 2006 base year inventory by 35 percent by CY 2020, using The Climate Registry protocol.
  • Complete and report all emissions from stationary combustion and purchased electricity within The Climate Registry transitional inventory starting with CY 2017. Establish a detailed plan to meet 2020 goals and a roadmap to meet long-term goals.

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