Western Kentucky University plans to replace light bulbs that last maybe three years with bulbs that can last 16 years.

It may not sound like a big deal, but the cost savings are huge.

Dale Dyer, WKU manager of plant operations, said the more efficient light bulbs cost the same and will continue an energy savings and efficiencies strategy that has reaped millions in savings since the 2007-08 school year throughout the university’s operations.

The campus kilowatt hours per square foot have dropped 21 percent since that school year. The new light bulbs, part of a project not out to bid just yet, will continue the reduction of campus kilowatt hours per square foot.

“In energy management, we push the envelope,” Dyer said.

For example, beginning in 2010, WKU converted its heat plant to operate fully on natural gas. It took coal boilers that are 65 percent energy efficient and replaced them with 84 percent efficient natural gas boilers. Dyer calculates the cost savings in that step alone at $1.4 million annually.

During the summer session, visitors to the highest point of the Hilltoppers’ main campus – Cherry Hall, Garrett Conference Center and Potter Hall – have seen digging crews hard at work. The project was the upgrade of the 5,000-volt electrical system there to one of 12,470 volts. Called “a redundancy in flow” by Dyer, the new system will help prevent power outages. In addition to the electrical upgrade, upgrades to the underground steam distribution system are about 40 percent complete.

“There is always new stuff,” Dyer said. Soon, the university will put out to bid the parking lot lighting with LED – light-emitting diode – instead of the current HID – high-intensity discharge – bulbs. HID lights create more heat, which makes them less efficient, Dyer said.

“We can control the lights differently,” Dyer said. By using the Internet, the lights on-off frequency and durations can be controlled. “The lights have their own Web address,” he said.

Energy efficiencies aren’t the only efficiencies explored by WKU. University officials also look at students’ time efficiencies.

It is estimated that a student loses about $10,000 each extra semester he or she is enrolled in college.

That’s a combination of tuition, room and board and the earnings lost when the student is still in school instead of earning a salary in the workplace, said Gordon Emslie, provost at Western Kentucky University.

“Efficiency is not necessarily saving money,” Emslie said. 

The guideline right now is 120 credit hours to obtain a bachelor’s degree at WKU. The state Council on Postsecondary Education has started a push to drop the total number of credit hours an undergraduate takes, Emslie said. Through dual-credit programs and increased course offerings, online students can move through the college experience faster.

More than 26 percent of students pursuing bachelor’s degrees graduate within four years, and greater than 45 percent graduate within five years, according to a report on cost savings and efficiencies prepared by university officials.

“There is more than one path to a degree,” Emslie said. For example, Carol Martin Gatton Academy of Mathematics and Science high school graduates are able to take coursework that knocks out the first two years of their four-year degree, entering WKU as juniors. Other students taking classes through the Kentucky Community and Technical College System can obtain associate’s degrees or program certificates, then enroll at WKU for the last two years to earn a bachelor’s degree.

There is also a meshing of undergraduate and graduate course work. An undergraduate can take master’s level courses during the four years to work on two degrees at the same time, Emslie said.

“We are re-engineering the completion tunnel,” he said.

— Chuck Mason covers education for the Daily News. Follow him on Twitter at twitter/bgdn schools or visit bgdailynews.com.

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