Metro Leaves the Light on for You, Like It or Not
Audit Finds Agency Could Save Millions in Electricity Costs

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 8, 2007

At Metro's headquarters in downtown Washington, the lights pop on at 5:30 every weekday morning. Hours before the masses arrive for work, the building glows like a silent, hulking eight-story spaceship.

Every evening, most employees go home at 5, but the lights stay on for three more hours, bright enough that passersby can see the artwork in individual offices. No "Starry Night," apparently.

The electric bill was $1,775,194.96 last year: nearly $1,400 per employee.

Workers worried about global warming -- or Metro's budget deficit -- might be inclined to turn the lights off when they're not needed, but they can't. Metro offices have no individual switches.

Used to be, the lights were on all the time. About two decades ago, Metro installed a computer system to control them, which was considered energy-efficient at that time, officials said.

Needless to say, no one thinks that anymore.

"That wouldn't be efficient. That's obvious," said Jeff Niesz, business development director for Pepco Energy Services, which Metro has hired to reduce energy costs.

More than 40 percent of U.S energy is consumed by commercial or residential buildings, and that figure is poised to rise as the population increases and more buildings go up. But measures abound that could cancel out much of that growth: They include replacing obsolete equipment and simply turning off lights.

Metro is one of the biggest power consumers in the Washington region, and it is desperately trying to trim its power bill as energy costs soar. Metro pays $26 million a year on average for electricity, not including power for the trains. Propulsion power cost $45.6 million last year, an increase of 18 percent over the year before.

The drain on the budget has had a ripple effect. General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. is proposing higher parking fees and fares, setting off a cascade of complaints across the region. His latest proposal, to be discussed by the Metro board Thursday, would generate $109 million toward a projected $173 million shortfall in next year's budget.

Catoe said he was "absolutely stunned" to find he couldn't turn off his light when he took over as chief executive nine months ago.

"Logic tells you that if you cut the lights, you cut the costs," he said, stupefied. And "if people are driving by this building at night and all the lights are on," they think Metro is being wasteful.

It is being wasteful, according to Pepco Energy.

Metro could save $4 million a year if upgrades were made to lighting, heating, cooling and other systems that serve the buildings, maintenance facilities, bus garages and subway stations, according to Pepco Energy's initial energy audit. The audit covered headquarters, a bus garage, a Metrorail station and the sprawling Carmen Turner training center in Landover.

The audit's bottom line: Metro could save enough in energy costs to pay for equipment upgrades over 10 years.

On headquarters lighting alone, Pepco Energy said Metro could save as much as $115,000 a year by changing light controls -- such as installing motion sensors that turn off lights when rooms are empty -- and switching to energy-efficient fixtures, Niesz said. About 1,300 employees work at headquarters.

Replacing the 1,400 single-pane windows with gas-filled thermal panes would save an additional $64,523 a year.

The 30-year-old toilets use 4.5 gallons of water per flush; replacing toilets, urinals and faucets with higher-efficiency ones would save about 7 million gallons and $34,741 a year, the audit said.

Another recommendation is to plug "vending misers" into snack and soda machines to power them down when they're not in use. The misers have a microchip that "learns the pattern of the machine," said Patrick Sweeney, Pepco Energy's vice president for sales. "If the earliest time someone gets a Coke is 8 a.m.," he said, the miser will power up enough in advance so that person "gets a cold Coke."

It would cost $6,952 to install the misers on the 39 vending machines at headquarters and two other Metro buildings. But with annual savings of $2,370, Pepco figures the devices would be paid off in just under three years.

"These are very simple fixes," Sweeney said.

Much of the electricity at headquarters, officially known as the Jackson-Graham Building, is needed to run the antiquated cooling and heating equipment on the top floor. Instead of central air, machines known as chillers use a system of water and air to cool headquarters and three nearby Metrorail stations.

"All administrators are trying to do something, because they want to be seen as stewards of the environment, and their constituents are asking for it," Sweeney said.

The governors in Maryland and Virginia are pushing to reduce energy costs in government buildings, as is D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D).

On the commercial side, the John Akridge Co., which has 18 buildings in the Washington area, budgeted $20,000 for energy-saving measures in each, installing motion sensors, wrapping blankets around water heaters and replacing 40-watt bulbs in exit signs with LEDs that use as little as six watts.

Concerned residents are watching, too. Green Line rider Barbara Runion has noticed the lights on at three outdoor parking lots on her way to work. "Why are the lights left on during the day?" she asked.

If Metro wants to raise parking fees, she said, someone should make sure lights aren't left on unnecessarily. "Is someone just lazy or not thinking about it?"

Metro spokeswoman Candace Smith said 20 percent of lights in the system, including outdoor parking lots, were designed to stay on all the time so there would be enough light in case of an electrical failure or evacuation. Other parking lots' lights are supposed to be turned off during the day, controlled by timers or sensors.

Pepco Energy plans a more extensive audit by February before making final energy conservation recommendations. Those would need to be approved by Metro's board.

In the meantime, Catoe has taken matters into his own hands, at least for his office. He had a switch put in so he can turn off the light when he goes home.

Staff writer David Fahrenthold contributed to this report.

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