Concerns About Lewis Center’s Use of Energy

To the Editors:

By my count, the Review has published 25 articles about the Adam Joseph Lewis Center since the project gathered momentum in 1996. Ironically, only four of these articles have appeared since the building was completed in January 2000. Apparently the abstract ideas were more newsworthy than the building itself. The article “Visiting Scientists Evaluate A. J. Lewis Center” by Sam Schreiber, which appeared in the Oct. 5 issue, breaks a year of silence on the building and is the first article to address building performance. The article was not worth the wait.
Schreiber gets off on the wrong foot when he calls the outside visitors, “NREL scientists.” The visitors consist of three individuals, one a PhD engineer from NREL, another a U. Colorado at Boulder engineering graduate student and the third an independent contractor (unknown credentials). It is not my intention to disparage the team’s credentials but merely to point out that none is a scientist and only one is an employee of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Moreover, given the title of the article, it is surprising that Schreiber appears not to have interviewed any of the outside visitors. Apparently his information is based entirely on interviews with Environmental Studies Professors David Orr and John Petersen and a recent OC graduate, Audra Abt.
Rather than get bogged down addressing all the factual errors in the article let me just say that improvements in HVAC control software might result in 20-30 percent energy savings, but this will not have significant impact on the building energy consumption which is 300 percent the original target figure. The bulk of the energy consumption cannot be addressed without major redesign and renovation of the HVAC system.

One such renovation is to replace the notorious electric boiler that now provides about 50% of the building’s heat. Though Schreiber classifies it as an experimental technology, electric boilers and heaters have been understood for nearly a century. Their inclusion in a green building is simply indefensible. The 500 kW building transformer made necessary by this and other electric heaters is the same size as that which serves the Ames department store south of Oberlin (77,000 sq. ft, more than 5X the size of the AJLC). The building’s extensive use of electric heat calls into question the competence of anyone who participated in its design.
I was struck by John Petersen’s use of the Einstein quotation, “‘If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research.…’” He appears to be suggesting the converse. If so, there is plenty of evidence that the designers of the AJLC are engaged in world-class research. Where, I wonder, will they publish their recent discoveries about electric heat?

Schreiber goes on to indicate that there are problems with the Living Machine which could be solved if only students would make more use of the restrooms. The Living Machine was designed to process 2,000 gallons of sewage daily, corresponding to one toilet flush every minute, 24 hours a day, 365 days per year. An uninformed observer might conclude that the system was oversized and is inappropriate for the building. But no — Schreiber explains that the problem is student education — we just need to find ways to get them to deposit more waste in the building. Surely this calls for a new student organization to work closely with dining services to solve this pressing problem. Or better yet, is there an opportunity here to collaborate with local merchants to bring tourists to Oberlin to buy a sweatshirt and watch the organic processing of their own waste?
And finally, Schreiber quotes Orr as saying that, from the beginning, they assumed it would take 10 years to break even and that they are ahead of schedule. This statement is truly incredible. As recently as April 2000, an article appearing in Environmental Design and Construction magazine quotes Orr as saying, “We believe that right off the bat, the building will generate more power than it will use.” President Dye, in her 1997 address to the Cleveland City Club said, “They have designed and are now preparing to build a structure that discharges no waste water, generates more electricity than it uses... You are all invited to come out and see it in about a year and a half.” Did she mean to say 11 years? How is the average person to reconcile Orr’s latest statement with quotations published in dozens of newspaper and magazine articles prior to 2001?

–John H. Scofield
Professor of physics

October 12
November 2

site designed and maintained by jon macdonald and ben alschuler :::