The Chilling Effect

“Before you start, I’m going to go ahead and say no.”

Sarah Lowder, an undergraduate student, was momentarily struck dumb in the middle of her presentation. The board of the pharmacology department, led by the chairman who had just spoken, sat in front of her as she gave an introduction to energy-saving practices in research labs.

She became aware of how young she looked. And how important everyone at the table in front of her was. And that her hair was still slightly wet from the shower, and that many of the men in front of her had gray hair.

Lowder is an intern at GreenLabs, a UNC committee that aims to bring together students, staff and faculty interested in waste reduction and efficiency in labs on campus. She was presenting GreenLabs’ latest initiative: The National Freezer Challenge.

“Speaking in public is enough, and the public that I was speaking to was a bunch of department heads — these big-wigs in the academic world,” Lowder said. “These people are performing incredible research for this university, and I’m this little undergraduate student here to tell them what to do.”

The challenge is a multi-university competition that aims to improve sustainability in research facilities by changing how scientists use their ultra-low temperature freezers. Kept at a brisk negative-80 degrees Celsius, the freezers consume a whopping 20 kilowatts of energy per hour each day.

The main goals of the challenge are deceptively simple: promote better maintenance practices for freezers; replace old models with newer, more efficient ones; and raise the temperature of some ultra-low freezers from negative-80 degrees Celsius to negative-70 degrees Celsius.

The competition, started by the University of California-Davis, is in its third year. GreenLabs decided to participate after a capstone class in UNC’s environmental sciences department suggested it last year. While the challenge doesn’t have a monetary reward — besides what the University would save by making these changes — Lowder said the friendly spirit of competition between universities is meant to foster innovation.

Amy Preble, Lowder’s boss and recycling outreach coordinator for GreenLabs, thought the competition would be an easy sell.

“I thought it would be really straightforward and really simple — we would just do these presentations and people would see the obvious benefit to it, and maybe we’d win some kind of award like UNC does in a lot of other energy programs,” Preble said. “It’s proven to be much more complicated than that.”

UNC is ranked high for its environmental friendliness — the eighth-most sustainable campus in the world, according to Universitas Indonesia’s green metric ranking. With this title, it’s often assumed that waste reduction is a priority across all parts of campus. Despite the university’s pages-long list of awards for sustainable innovation, there are some areas that remain virtually untouched by these initiatives.

Ironically, it’s some of the most technologically innovative places that lag the furthest behind in sustainability.

In a study of nine UNC campus buildings, the Genetic Medicine Building consumed more energy than the other eight combined. The building houses more than 100 ultra-low temperature freezers.

Graphic by Emily Hackeling

Graphic by Emily Hackeling

Most undergraduate students will never come in contact with the specialized lab equipment the challenge is so focused on. So why care?

“Unless you’re a science major and you work in a lab, you don’t even know that a lot of this equipment exists,” Preble said. “There are big portions of the campus population are never exposed to it.”

Preble is frustrated but understanding about the lack of awareness. It’s hard to rally support, she said, for an issue like refrigeration –— not glamorous, not particularly visible.

“Recycling is universal. Drinking water from refillable bottles — it’s universal. Eating in the dining hall is universal, but labs aren’t necessarily universal, so people don’t think about sustainability there as much,” Preble said.

But extending sustainable practices to research labs, the GreenLabs team believes, is vitally important for energy-use on campus as a whole.

Put simply, a single ultra-low temperature freezer can use the same amount of energy per year as a single-family household. The older the freezer, the greater the potential for waste – some freezers in the UNC labs have outlived their 10-year lifespan by two decades.

With their massive rate of energy consumption, mistakes like this can lead to significant waste.

Lowder said any reduction in the approximately $80.8 million the University spends on utility payments each year could redirect funds to programs that would better benefit students.

It’s difficult to get an exact number on how much is spent powering these freezers because those costs aren’t monitored on a department-level. Dr. Gary Johnson, chairman of the pharmacology department, said the system is set up that way to avoid micromanagement.

“We let the individual labs deal with their own freezers, along with the maintenance and care of them,” he said. “Some people are just ignorant about how to best take care of the refrigeration equipment. There are probably about 20 percent of the labs in this building that are negligent about it, but we don’t address it on a faculty level.”

Johnson said he’s aware of the massive amounts of energy required to run these freezers. So why the pushback on new policies?

Johnson had been one of the members viewing the GreenLabs presentation, and he was less than convinced.

“The GreenLabs presentation was well thought out, and you could tell they were passionate,” Johnson said. “But it just wasn’t enough to get a consensus within the faculty. There’s a huge momentum barrier to implementing these measures.”

Johnson said the spirit of the competition was good, but the motivation just wasn’t there.

“The research community is so competitive, and it’s hard to imagine these scientists taking a break from that to prioritize freezer sustainability,” Johnson said. “The biggest challenge to this program is just compliance and willingness from the faculty.”

Preble said part of the problem seems to be a lack of communication and a distrust of GreenLabs’ credentials.

“There are some assumptions that people make about sustainability, and some people are automatically resistant,” she said. “We’re not scientists, we’re not Ph.D.s. For one, they probably see us as outsiders.”

But Johnson said the faculty’s lukewarm reaction had nothing to do with who was raising the challenge.

“No one’s opposed to the idea of new freezers or more sustainability, there are just concerns about it being viable,” he said.

For the high-level research his department does, Johnson said the energy expenditure is not a waste. Instead, it’s primarily being used to keep virus, enzyme, and cell samples safe and usable for research ranging from cancer treatments to genetic mapping techniques.

“Technology drives research, and that requires energy,” Johnson said. “UNC is able to be so distinguished in the sciences because of our state-of-the-art technology. It’s part of what makes Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill.”

Lowder said UNC’s distinguished position in the sciences does not need to be at odds with its distinguished position in sustainable technology.

“We realize that this isn’t a massive energy user just for kicks – this is a necessary component of extremely important research,” Lowder said. “But we can still do this more efficiently.”

While the pushback against new maintenance policies mostly comes from a desire to avoid micromanaging labs, the main point of contention has been GreenLabs’ goal of increasing the temperature of ultra-low freezers by 10 degrees, from negative-80 degrees C to negative-70.

Britt Carter, a scientific refrigeration technician, said it’s a push that can be extremely controversial. “Basically there’s this old-school mentality of, ‘This is how we’re going to do it, and we’re not deviating from it.’ ”

Carter said when the temperature gets above negative-62 degrees C in these freezers, oil begins circulating and re-freezes in unpredictable patterns. Over time, this freezing and thawing can lead to freezer failure. Switching from an 18-degree threshold, at negative-80 degrees, to an eight-degree threshold seems risky to some researchers.

“We’re concerned about it being viable — logistically and economically,” Johnson said. “No one’s against the idea of having more sustainable practices for the lab freezers, but we don’t micromanage; we don’t want to compromise any samples, and we don’t want to spend enormous amounts of money to replace working freezers with more efficient ones.”

Carter said awareness and education could be the solution for the less “controversial” goals of the Freezer Challenge, like promoting better and more frequent freezer maintenance.

“A lot of people don’t know how to take basic care of the freezers, or that we have a team of maintenance people that specialize in that,” he said. “How many times do you go into your freezer and not think about it? How often do you check to make sure the door’s shut after you close it? That’s how people treat these freezers. They just don’t think about it until after it becomes a problem. And it’s not their job to think about it.

“That’s why I’m here.”

At Duke University, sustainability advocates have had more success changing their policies on research freezers.

Their solution? Go above faculty — straight to the dean.

“The faculty doesn’t pay the power bill,” said Randy Smith, head of Duke’s GreenLabs Committee. “The dean pays the power bill. On sustainability projects, you have to get the savings to whoever has to pay the bill. No one else cares.”

Smith said making any real changes required giving some incentives to researchers “beyond the joy of doing something just because it’s right.”
Duke found the motivation to make changes after testing a new model of efficient freezers made by Stirling Ultracold, he said.

“We bought a Stirling to test it, and it just blew our minds, really,” he said. “There’s a lot of money to be saved when it comes to these freezers, and now Stirlings are the only new ones we’re allowed to plug in.”

Stirling’s model uses 50 percent less energy than the current units used at UNC, and it utilizes only natural refrigerants in its cooling system.

The freezers that are currently used in UNC labs cost around $11,000. The price of a new Stirling freezer begins at $14,000.

Lowder said she couldn’t see GreenLabs having any success without implementing some sort of cash rebate program for replacing their freezers. “[Researcher’s] first priority is not to save the university money. Their first priority is science, and their work. Without something like rebates, they don’t have the motivation to save energy.”

Preble said it’s those rebates on new Stirling freezers, awareness campaigns and collaboration with researchers that GreenLabs will now focus on.

“Even if we don’t win, a huge benefit has been deepening the relationship between the GreenLabs committee and the research labs, which isn’t something we had before,” Preble said. “Whatever happens, we’ll be a little bit closer than we were.”

Johnson said the pharmacology department doesn’t have any current plans to change its practices with freezers.

The official competition runs until Aug. 31, 2015.

He’s considering it in his 10-year plan.