Energy Decision Maker Bert Bland: Taking Care of the Mice and the Rice

Mar 27

Energy Decision Maker Bert Bland: Taking Care of the Mice and the Rice

The Megawatt Hour Series: Energy Decision Makers

Bert Bland, Associate Vice President for Energy & Sustainability
Facilities and Campus Services
Cornell University

Robert “Bert” Bland
Associate Vice President for Energy & Sustainability
Facilities and Campus Services
Cornell University

Interview by Amanda Denney

Bert Bland is responsible for around-the-clock electric, heating, cooling, water, sewage, energy generation, distribution, and use-optimization of Cornell University’s 250+ buildings. Additionally, he helps to manage the University’s Climate Action Plan and the efforts to create a carbon-neutral campus by 2035. Bert’s work provides him with ample experience dealing with an incredibly complex set of responsibilities, stakeholders and decisions.  

This post is the first in a series that The Megawatt Hour is publishing with influential energy decision makers. The second, titled Complexities in Energy Decision Making The Megawatt Hour Series: Cornell University will be published next.

Tell us how you got your start in energy and sustainability?

I was an early environmentalist, even back when I was in high school. In fact, during my senior year of high school, I skipped a day of school so I could go to the first ever Earth Day celebration in 1970 in Philadelphia. Back then, most people were concerned about clean air and clean water. That’s what it meant to be an environmentalist back then. I was always concerned about clean air clean water. I went to Cornell and got a Bachelor of Science in chemical engineering.

After graduation, I wanted to work to clean up air and water. Exxon hired me to help with remediation and implementation of Clean Air and Clean Water projects at oil refineries I saw firsthand how a refinery like that operated before Federal Regulation and it was not pretty. That early work experience gave me a real belief in the importance of Regulation for protecting the environment, and an impression of the vast scale of fossil fuel production. I came back to Cornell and got a Master’s in environmental engineering and did research into fuel ethanol from waste.  The experience at the oil refinery and renewable fuel research production launched my interest in renewable energy. I came over to facilities and started doing energy and environmental work for facilities and I’ve been here ever since.

Bert is also responsible for efforts to create a carbon-neutral campus by 2035.

What are your primary responsibilities as VP for Energy & Sustainability at Cornell?

We run the university like a little city up here. Actually, not even a “little” city. We have 250 major buildings and over 30,000 people on the Ithaca campus.

I’m responsible for 24/7 electric, heating, cooling, water, sewage, and then the energy generation, distribution, and use-optimization of the buildings. We function as an optional islanding electric microgrid in which we produce 36 megawatts of electricity at the combined heat and power plant, which is used for heat and electricity. We have a water filtration plant where we make all our water.

As for the “sustainability” part of my title, my main responsibility is helping to manage the Climate Action Plan and the decarbonization of our utility systems to create a carbon-neutral campus. We have committed to a goal of being a carbon-neutral campus by 2035.

What role do you see data and analytics playing in your decision-making processes?

Yes, data and analytics certainly plays a role today and is definitely going to play a bigger role in the future. There is this saying, “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.” That is so true here.

As I said, there are 250 major buildings and most all of those buildings are complex machines. They have air handlers, and fans, and lighting control, and humidity control, and ventilation control — they’re very complex machines. Between those 250 major buildings, there are something like 14,000 programmable controllers that control the systems. There are 1.2 million sensors and input points that go to those controllers that report back to an energy management control system. So clearly, we have a lot of data and we pay a lot of attention to the energy use intensity of a building (EUI). We do monthly and annual review but still, often times, our problem is not that we don’t have enough data but that we have too much data to make meaningful use of it.

Let me give you one interesting and promising metric that the data show. In the big picture, the part of campus served by our combined heat and power plant has grown 20% since the year 2000. We have a lot more building stock, some of which are labs with high energy use. Amazingly, through energy conservation and other activities, we have kept the energy use flat since 2000.

As you know, it is much easier to save a watt than to make a watt renewably. This is promising as we look to the future challenges of establishing a carbon-neutral campus. The less we have to make, the better off we are going to be.

Beyond cost savings, what are the primary drivers and considerations for executing comprehensive energy reduction, procurement, and generation projects?

Safety first — we always prioritize safety when thinking through these projects. Reliability next. The central energy plant, for instance, is the sole source of heat for the campus, so it has to be reliable. Compliance with environmental, health and safety rules is huge too.

And then there is Sustainability. You’ve heard of the triple bottom line, right? People, Planet, Profit. Well, we have a decision-making framework that we call the quadruple bottom line: People, Profit, Planet, and Purpose. Purpose meaning Cornell ’s academic mission.

When we evaluate projects, in addition to  the single bottom line of “what will this cost us?” We look at how it will impact people. Often, we structure our projects to have a “living lab” aspect. The living lab approach serves the academic mission by providing a teaching and research platform as well as ultimately delivering low-carbon, reliable utilities.

Our Earth Source Heat project is the big living lab project that we’re focused on right now. It is just getting underway but hopefully, we’ll have it up and running by 2035.

Which stakeholders need to be most involved in energy project decision-making? How do you get buy-in?

Well, I have to admit it is really quite daunting to get both internal and community acceptance of a project. You know the utility interconnection is hard, community acceptance is tricky, and the initial approval is tedious. They are all hard and long; sometimes controversial and contentious.

In an effort to reach a carbon-neutral goal, we’ve focused heavily on renewables. (See The Megawatt Hour’s follow-up piece called Energy Cost Management: Navigating Complexity for additional insights from Bert about the quest for a carbon-neutral campus.) At time, we have had to push beyond the utilities’ comfort zone. In fact, in the past public utilities have not been friendly to renewable energy, really. Utilities were forced to pay retail electric rates for the power, and they didn’t think that was fair. There’s a good argument why it wasn’t. Because of this resistance, we moved from getting projects built through remote net metering to actually evaluating the projects based on the value of distributed energy. This is a different model that is not quite as helpful for getting projects built. Dealing with the utility business models and their interconnection requirements is always hard and time-consuming.

The community hosting a project is another critical stakeholder. Almost every time we try to do something it’s contentious. I think there are different things that play into this, but one big thing that sticks out, and as one woman even said: “I love solar, just not in my backyard.” I mean she literally said that.

Sometimes we don’t get buy-in.  People don’t like change – especially in their own neighborhood. Cornell was the “credit-worthy power off taker” for a wind project which never got approval – the proposal went down in flames because it wasn’t accepted by the neighbors.   It was an innovative business model:  a community-owned 16-megawatt, 7 turbine wind farm proposed for the highest place in Tompkins county in a rural area with existing high voltage transmission lines One of the real necessary components of a renewable energy future is running transmission lines around the country, and this already has those in place.

Another stakeholder would be the Public Service Commission, who is responsible for regulating the rates and services of a public utility. We have been very active in using attorneys and experts to make sure the rules are fair and we can get these things built. We have been involved in a number of cases to set some precedent for some of these projects.

We must also get initial approval from the university and secure developer funding. Internally, this is kind of a discretionary thing. We try to bring these projects in without costing the university capital expenditure or a premium for the renewable energy, so we must have a developer that is up for all of this. But still, these projects aren’t really saving the university any money, if you don’t count the value of carbon saved or renewable energy credits. We really have to advocate for and sell the value of each project internally.

We have what’s called an energy risk oversight committee that we meet with. They are usually the first stop for trying to justify a renewable energy project with all of that complexity. We have to set our annual budget with utilities. We involve the colleges in the decision on budgeting because they each pay the bill, along with the Treasury, Purchasing, and Budgeting departments.

I could go on and on about the various stakeholders in energy projects, but that should give you a sense for the complexity of each decision and each process.

What keeps you up at night?

“We’ve got to keep the people, the mice and the rice safe and comfortable as we decarbonize.”

When I think about my work and the things that I worry about, really, I am concerned about taking care of the mice and the rice. The challenge of running a 24/7 campus is that we have to provide heat –and cooling if it’s a really hot day – for all the buildings and people on campus.

If we lose the central energy plant during a cold period, we risk losing valuable research in greenhouses, valuable research in labs, valuable research with animals, and so on.

I certainly believe that climate change is a crisis and an existential threat to civilization. I believe that we are not doing enough. So that keeps me up at night. But that worry is also drowned out by a fear that I am going to get a call in the middle of the night that says we’ve got a serious operational or facilities problem. That’s the real worry for me. It’s tricky because we are having to handle a great deal of complexity to just keep things rolling along. And yet we also have this looming greater issue, climate change. It’s always a challenge. We try to navigate all of the complexity, run a great campus while being mindful of the bigger picture. We’ve got to keep the people, the mice and the rice safe and comfortable as we decarbonize.

What is your favorite part of the job?

My favorite part without a question is the people I get to work with. We have a team here that is so skilled and so knowledgeable and so motivated. They are really on fire. In my department there are three sections: there’s the Utilities Production section; Distribution & Energy Management section; and Campus Sustainability section. We have attracted a great group of motivated people to work with us. Working with students is also really fun and rewarding. I get to see the future energy decision-makers. It makes me hopeful that we are doing good stuff and making great progress.

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