UCSF Sustainability Stories


Carson Kerger, Sustainability Fellow, March 2019


Huge Energy and Dollars Savings in Labs

We all know that changing habits can be difficult. When it comes to encouraging greener behavior, research has shown that the use of prompts can help us overcome the hurdles to achieve real change. The use of prompts—in addition to engaging employees to become green champions by making simple choices—is behind the success of two UCSF Office of Sustainability energy projects, the Adopt-A-Spot Campaign and the Ultra-Low Temperature (ULT) Freezer Rebate Program. By promoting energy-saving behavior, these projects enable UCSF to both reduce its carbon footprint and achieve substantial financial savings, ultimately helping UCSF to serve its mission of advancing health worldwide. 

Adopt-a-Spot Campaign Creates Energy-Saving Habits
First piloted in fall of 2016 in partnership with PG&E’s Step Up and Power Down initiative, the Adopt-A-Spot campaign’s message is simple: Get rewarded for highlighting best practices that reduce energy use from lab equipment. Best practices entail powering down or unplugging benchtop equipment at the end of the day or when not in use during the day. Adopted Spots are identified with stickers to remind their “parents” that their Spot needs some rest in the evening. Equipment seen as the most likely to waste energy are targeted, including VAV fume hoods, centrifuges, PCR, water baths, heat blocks, and lights from biosafety hoods and microscopes. Sustainability Fellows perform weekly audits of participating labs to ensure compliance and award participants with weekly raffle prizes. 

Enrolling 41 participants and 81 pieces of equipment, the 2018 Fall Adopt-A-Spot campaign saved UCSF an estimated 27,000 kWh over its six-week period.  PG&E collaborated with a behavioral scientist who determined that a new behavior must be performed daily over six weeks to reap long-lasting change.  Assuming that lab members formed a habit of powering down their adopted spots, the 2018 campaign will yield over $42,000 in energy savings annually. It will also reduce 168 metric tons of CO2 emissions from being emitted, equivalent to the carbon sequestered by 198 acres of forest. 

A grand prize was offered this year, an iPad, to encourage participation and bring a sense of competition to the campaign; adopting more equipment gives a higher likelihood of winning. This prize was awarded to Illya Gordon of the Roy Lab, who adopted nine pieces of equipment, saving over $100/week or $5,200/year “Participating in this program has been a great learning opportunity,” Gordon shared, “Adopt-A-Spot allowed us to make a concise effort to understand and monitor the power usage of the commonly used equipment.”

Freezer Rebate Program Saves Tons of Energy
Another successful energy-reduction program helps labs to replace old, energy hogging freezers with new, energy efficient ones. Through a multi-department collaboration and commitment to environmental stewardship, the ULT Freezer Rebate Program embodies a triple win solution for Facilities Services (FS), the Office of Sustainability, and the research lab community. By offering a rebate on ENERGY STAR-rated ULT models, the program alleviates the competing priorities between conserving funds and choosing energy efficient lab equipment, while inviting researchers to play a bigger role in supporting UCSF’s carbon neutral goal. This program supports UCSF’s new Energy Conservation Policy that requires all appliances and office equipment purchased with University funds to be ENERGY STAR labeled if feasible. ENERGY STAR is a labeling program for appliances, computers, lighting, and now laboratory-grade refrigerators and freezers that identifies and promotes energy-efficient products.

Labs can constitute up to two thirds of the energy used by research universities, and cold storage equipment, particularly freezers with a temperature set-point of -80℃ or lower, are some of the highest energy consumers in laboratories. There are some 1,200 freezers housed across UCSF, which are estimated to be emitting 13,000 metric tons of CO2 annually and costing the university over $3M from plug load energy and increased HVAC cooling requirements.

In 2013, freezer manufacturer Stirling released a ULT freezer that uses half the energy of a new conventional model. Identifying this as an opportunity that would serve UCSF’s triple bottom line, the Office of Sustainability, FS, and My Green Lab brought the freezer rebate program to life in September 2014. Soon after, in 2015, My Green Lab collaborated with the EPA to develop the first ENERGY STAR criteria for -80C freezers, creating a market for energy efficient ULT freezers. There are now over 20 ENERGY STAR - rated ULT freezers available, and all certified models are eligible for the rebate program.

Under the rebate program, participants* receive $4,500 if they decommission an old, energy-inefficient freezer and replace it with a new, ENERGY STAR model. Alternatively, researchers who just want to purchase a new ULT freezer receive $2,000 for choosing an Energy Star model. Labs are also offered a $500 incentive if they agree to maintain any old or new freezer set-point at -70℃ instead of -80℃. Studies show this provides 25-30% more energy savings.

The popularity of this program simultaneously brings the institution one step closer to its 2025 carbon neutrality goal and educates researchers about the high-energy consumption of their everyday laboratory equipment. Although members of the UCSF community generally want to do the right thing for the environment, researchers don’t pay the utility bill and as a result pick ULT freezers based on the upfront cost or performance considerations, rather than energy efficiency. By making it easier for labs to purchase freezers based on environmental considerations, the rebate program increases researchers’ morale, since they can make a positive environmental impact and be more connected with institution-wide goals and programs. It also has the added benefit of minimizing risk to freezer assets.

This year, 40 ENERGY STAR freezer rebates were awarded for a total of 82 ULT freezers since 2014, saving $89,000 in energy costs each year. This comes to over $250,000 savings accumulated since the program’s inception. Indirect savings from reduced building cooling requirements can increase those savings by 50% or more. Cold storage is a hot topic, with the expected exponential growth expected with precision medicine research.  The ULT Freezer Rebate Program is a key strategy to reduce energy demand and the Office of Sustainability hopes to transition the entire fleet of freezers to ENERGY STAR. If all UCSF ULT freezers were replaced with ENERGY STAR models, UCSF would save an estimated $2.1 M in energy, enough to power 2,300 Bay Area homes (or power the HSIR towers) and avoid 8,400 Metric tons of CO2 emissions.


*due to funding policy, freezers located in UCSFH buildings are not eligible for rebate programs