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Austin’s Heat Dome: How Texas Universities can Remain Cool

Austin’s Heat Dome: How Texas Universities can Remain Cool

Written By Gaige Baisch
11 July 2024

Austin, Texas, is currently dealing with an intense heat dome, causing temperatures to soar well above normal levels for this time of year. This has created challenging conditions for residents and businesses alike. However, a local university and Optimum Energy partner is experiencing normal operations, thanks to its state-of-the-art chilled water system.

The Heat Dome Phenomenon
A heat dome occurs when a high-pressure system traps a mass of hot air over a region, leading to prolonged periods of excessively high temperatures. Austin is no stranger to the heat, but this current heat dome has pushed temperatures to unprecedented levels, with daytime temperatures regularly exceeding 100°F. This extreme heat poses significant challenges, from increased energy consumption and strain on power grids to health risks for the population and looks increasingly like the new normal for Austin residents. According to a study done by the UT-City CoLab, a partnership between the City of Austin and local university scientists, heat waves are expected to double by the end of the century under both the “business-as-usual” and “high emissions” scenarios they modeled.

Impact on Austin
Health Concerns: The prolonged high temperatures have led to an increase in heat-related illnesses. Hospitals and clinics are reporting higher cases of heat exhaustion and heat stroke. The Austin American-Statesman reported that “Over Memorial Day weekend alone, EMS responded to 54 heat-related illnesses over three days, up from just eight in 2023.”

Energy Demand: The demand for electricity has surged as residents and businesses crank up air conditioning systems to counteract the heat. This increased load is putting a strain on the local power grid, raising concerns about potential outages and the consequences of the grid failing.

Daily Life Disruptions: Outdoor activities and events have been curtailed, with many opting to stay indoors during peak heat hours. Public facilities like swimming pools and cooling centers are seeing heightened usage.

Challenges Solved Through Optimized Chilled Water
Despite these challenges, it’s business as usual in the halls, dormitories and other buildings around campus for one of Optimum Energy’s many Texas-based partners, largely due to its efficient and reliable chilled water system. Here’s how this system is making a difference:

Advanced Infrastructure: Our chilled water systems are designed to handle extreme conditions. The system utilizes a network of underground pipes to distribute chilled water across the campus in the most efficient manner possible, effectively cooling buildings even during the hottest days.

Energy Efficiency: Universities around the country partner with Optimum Energy to ensure their systems are optimized for best-in-class energy efficiency, reducing the overall energy consumption while maintaining optimal temperatures in the classrooms, offices, and laboratories that can stretch across the hundreds of acres that make up a campus. This not only ensures comfort but also supports sustainability efforts by reducing emissions and lowering operational costs from HVAC.

Reliability and Maintenance: Regular maintenance and upgrades have kept the system in top condition. A university’s facilities management team closely monitors the system’s performance, addressing any issues promptly to avoid disruptions. Simultaneously, Optimum Energy’s technology and personnel are closely monitoring real-time data and highlighting any potential problems that can become large over time. And for the unlikely situations that see equipment or system failures, built-in redundancies, such as backup chillers and pumps are kept ensuring continuous operation.

Innovation in Cooling Technology: Continued investments in cutting-edge cooling technologies help colleges keep pace with new challenges. The integration of smart sensors and automated controls can allow for precise temperature regulation, ensuring that cooling is provided where and when it is needed most. You can also utilize thermal energy storage (TES) systems, which allows a campus to produce chilled water during off-peak hours (when electricity demand and prices are lower) and store it for use during peak hours. This helps in balancing the load and maintaining a steady supply of chilled water. These TES Tanks can be intelligently dispatched by Optimum Energy throughout the heat of the day to shave the peaks off of the power consumption required to cool the campus. And use the most efficient chiller equipment on the market, able to integrate with the previously listed technologies.

The Broader Implications
A university’s ability to maintain regular operations during the heat dome highlights the importance of investing in resilience. The cool halls are not the product of throwing money at a problem. Instead, they’re often the benefit of an investment made decades ago in the campus infrastructure itself. As climate change leads to more frequent and severe heatwaves, other universities and organizations can look to Optimum Energy’s track record of success as a model for developing and maintaining systems that can withstand these extreme weather conditions.

The heat dome over Austin, Texas, underscores the growing challenges posed by extreme weather. While the city at large grapples with the heat, Optimum Energy’s local university partner stands out as an example of what large institutions can accomplish with the right plan. Thanks to its optimized chilled water system, the university remains a cool and operational even amid a 110°F Heat Index. This system not only ensures the continuity of academic functions and life on campus, but also serves as a blueprint for other colleges facing similar climate-related challenges in the future.

By prioritizing energy efficiency, reliability, and sustainability in their cooling infrastructure, your college or university can demonstrate a proactive approach to managing extreme weather, setting a standard for its peers in higher education and beyond.