New Rice energy, sustainability center is a ‘think-and-do tank’

Tucked in offices in Abercrombie Engineering Laboratory is a new university center, believed to be the first of its kind. The Administrative Center for Sustainability and Energy Management (ACSEM, pronounced “axiom”) is an innovative concept that pulls together administration, staff, faculty and students from different parts of campus to attack a common topic: the future of energy and sustainability at Rice.

Richard Johnson


“We play an advisory role to the university not just for short-term energy management but also long-term planning,” said Johnson, director of energy and sustainability at Rice.

Really long-term.

“The time has come for us to think about the next 50 to 100 years of energy at Rice, and I think it’s fair to say the next 50 to 100 years are going to look very different from the past 100 years,” he said.

“When Rice first opened there were fewer than 2 billion people on the planet; this past year there were 7 billion. And by 2050, we’ll be between 9 and 10 billion. So the question for the world is, How do we provide enough energy, clean air, clean water, food, fiber, other resources in a climate that is relatively stable for 9 to 10 billion people to lead lives rich in opportunity? The question for the ACSEM is, How do we plan for Rice’s natural resource needs with an eye toward that future and make it part of the pedagogical experience?”

Barbara White Bryson, associate vice president for Facilities, Engineering and Planning, conceived the idea of an administrative center in early 2011, and the ACSEM opened that summer. Johnson described it as a “think-and-do tank,” which Bryson said exactly captures the intention of creating ACSEM.

“Rice is very fortunate to have some of the most innovative individuals regarding sustainability, energy and energy management possible,” she said. “The track record of each individual and their related contributions to Rice is really stunning. So we wondered what would happen if we made it easier for these brilliant individuals to spend time with each other by pulling them together in one small area with focused goals and a little bit of funding. Well, the answer is remarkable.

“This group is saving the university money every single day, not only by more effectively managing the systems we have, but also by improving those systems and by making us smarter about our investments in buildings — even in utilities. More importantly, the ACSEM team is helping Rice think about our energy future in a deliberate and challenging manner.”

Founding staff members Johnson; Mark Gardner, operations analyst; Richard Stearman, construction services manager; Eric Valentine, energy management coordinator; and John Windham, energy/controls technician, have hit the ground running.

“We have done some things that have enabled us to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and save energy already, such as through putting building temperatures back within an appropriate range in various buildings,” Johnson said. “With some of the new buildings, thanks to LEED, energy and water efficiency were hard-wired from the beginning.  Also, one of our team members is spending much of his time at the BioScience Research Collaborative, in part to help them manage their energy demand.”

Another money-saving endeavor has been participating in an energy load-sharing program. Rice has agreed to reduce consumption of electricity during certain peak-demand times to reduce the strain on the state electrical grid by turning on its natural gas-fired cogeneration turbines and reducing demand for energy on campus. Not only will participation in this program help the university reduce utility costs, it will also reduce the possibility of rolling brownouts in the Houston area.  ACSEM is positioning Rice to take even greater advantage of load-shedding programs and similar opportunities through a new electricity contract, Johnson said.

“In a broad way, we can say that one of the big initiatives of the ACSEM is to lead Rice into very innovative territory on how we can purchase power or otherwise utilize our campus generating assets to minimize costs for the university but also allow us to be essentially a good citizen in the community by helping to prevent electricity brownouts,” he said.

Moreover, from an environmental perspective, the power plants that would be turned on during those peak times were the oldest, most polluting and least efficient, so whenever Rice can turn on its cogeneration plant or otherwise reduce its load, it’s defraying the need for those plants to kick into action, he said.

ACSEM’s next big project is a holistic plan to guide future energy investments and decisions at Rice.  The Rice Integrated Climate and Energy Master Plan, or RICEMaP, will address the energy equipment and distribution infrastructure needs of the campus as it grows, identify energy savings opportunities in existing buildings and chart a path for Rice to become carbon-neutral so that it will not contribute to global climate change.  According to Johnson, the plan will look closely at emerging clean energy technologies and will also be informed by the variety of opinions about how the availability and pricing of future energy sources is expected to change.

“We hope RICEMaP will put us in a position where our successors will be able to look back and say we’ve given them the infrastructure and flexibility that they need to be successful and sustainable in the future,” Johnson said.

But ACSEM’s greatest influence might lie with student and faculty engagement. Johnson fosters strategic connections between faculty and student research and campus operations and planning: “Apply the thinking that’s going on over on the faculty side with how we actually do our business on campus,” he said.  These connections include diverse areas such as stormwater management, building energy controls networks and grounds maintenance.

One important way to connect the two is through the students.

“One of the unique characteristics of Rice’s sustainability story is the degree to which students have been the catalysts for change,” Johnson said. “There’s been a history of partnership with students in a very engaged way. It typically either happens through classes or through student environmental organizations.”

Johnson co-teaches a class in the spring with Kyriacos Zygourakis, the A.J. Hartsook Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and professor of bioengineering, in which students focus on Rice-specific studies related to energy, greenhouse-gas emissions and water use. In the fall, Johnson co-teaches a project-oriented class with Professor and Chair of Sociology Elizabeth Long in which students actually implement an environmental change on campus and measure its effectiveness. ACSEM team members also regularly partner with courses in both the Engineering and Architecture schools.

And at any given time, Johnson said, ACSEM is working with a number of student organizations, such as RESET, the Student Association environmental committee, the Rice Environmental Club and the Eco-Rep Program.

“The students help to improve the university’s environmental performance, and it’s great leadership training for them,” he said.

“I read an interesting quote the other day that universities shouldn’t tell students what to think — they should tell students what to think about,” Johnson said. “And in some sense, we help with that. We’re helping students as well as the administration to think about energy and sustainability. The administrative center concept enables us to do it in a focused, strategic way that bridges all parts of the campus.

“Every dollar that we spend on energy is a dollar we can’t spend on teaching and research and student life, so in that sense, we’re helping the university to fulfill its mission.  But the process of saving energy and water, and other similar sustainability efforts, reinforces the university’s core mission when it engages faculty and students.  Reinforcing Rice’s mission is what the ACSEM is all about.”


About Jennifer Evans

Jennifer Evans is a senior editor in the Rice's Office of Public Affairs.