Case Studies

Russell Thompson – Duke University

Duke engineering and utilities director energized by sustainability upgrades

Seeing Duke University’s two coal-fired power plants is one of Russell Thompson’s indelible memories from touring the campus before he was hired as director of utilities and engineering in 2007.

Then, one of the first initiatives he led was replacing coal-powered plant boilers with ones powered by natural gas—the last chunk of coal was burned in 2011.

And as Duke University prepares to celebrate its centennial and meet its carbon neutrality goal in 2024, Thompson is guiding a $10 million project to replace natural gas with electricity to heat campus buildings.

Russell Thompson | Executive Director of Utilities and Engineering, Interim Vice President of Operations | Duke University

Russell Thompson | Executive Director of Utilities and Engineering, Interim Vice President of Operations | Duke University

The conversion is expected to reduce natural gas use by as much as 15 percent—this is after he and his team have reduced carbon emissions by 39 percent since 2007 despite the university adding 3 million square feet of new building space.

Thompson is also guiding energy reduction projects including retrofitting buildings for LED lighting. He and his team are looking decades ahead to ensure the university’s science buildings and then its hospital and health care infrastructure operate more sustainably, too.

“My team has a proven track record of delivering highly reliable systems while reducing costs,” Thompson says. “We have talented people and the right processes in place to deliver change.”

Campus conversions

Located in Durham, North Carolina, Duke University is the Tar Heel State’s fourth-largest employer with more than 45,000 people and has a student enrollment of more than 17,000. Its campus is located on 1,400 acres and has about 20 million square feet of facilities.

Thompson leads a team of 85 that is part of the greater facilities management department of about 600 employees. They’re responsible for delivering the heating, cooling, power and water as well as disposing of wastewater and stormwater.

He says he and the university initially studied whether coal could be used in a limited fashion in 2010 before choosing natural gas boilers. Then, in 2012, Thompson and his team studied which buildings used steam directly, and determined nearly 50 percent could be converted to a hot water distribution system.

Russell Thompson | Executive Director of Utilities and Engineering, Interim Vice President of Operations | Duke University

To date, Thompson and his team have replaced the steam lines with hot water ones to 26 buildings. That’s taken nearly a decade, in part because connecting lines aren’t interchangeable and need to be excavated. He says the next step in the conversion is to electrify the hot water production by installing chillers that recapture waste heat and recycle it to the hot water system.

Thompson says one of the cost savings benefits is that the new hot water lines will last at least three times as long as steam condensate lines that need to be replaced every 10 to 15 years.

“Technically, not a lot of what we’re doing is new,” Thompson says. “We have found that we save about 30 percent energy at each building by doing the conversion.”

Progress made, work ahead

However, Duke’s science buildings and health care facilities, including Duke University Medical Center, are much more energy intensive. They need steam heat to sterilize equipment, for example. So, Thompson and his team will study how to reduce natural gas consumption as the university begins renovating its science buildings.

He estimates it will take a decade to address each of those areas, and that smaller, on-site electrical steam generators can provide steam for equipment such as autoclaves.

Electricity use has been reduced in campus buildings by 12 percent, too, in part by retrofitting 6 million square feet of facilities with LED lighting. The retrofits have been complemented by improvements to HVAC systems, such as installing upgraded controls allowing building temperatures to be changed when buildings are occupied or vacant.

Russell Thompson | Executive Director of Utilities and Engineering, Interim Vice President of Operations | Duke University

Thompson says they’re expanding a new monitoring system capable of alerting his team when a system is improperly balanced or providing simultaneous heating and cooling. They’re also rebalancing the air control systems in the science buildings to better control the flow to exhaust hoods.

To use water more efficiently, new fixtures have been installed throughout the campus and the university. There’s also a 12-acre water-reclamation pond Duke installed in 2015 to handle stormwater. The reclaimed water is used in the university’s chilled water cooling towers and reduces consumption of Durham’s public water by 100 million gallons annually.

Driven to improve

Thompson brought expertise and processes to Duke he learned and developed while helping lead utilities and facilities management at Texas Instruments’ facility in Dallas. However, the native of Hampton, Virginia, had originally envisioned a career designing and engineering microchips.

He earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Old Dominion University, and as Thompson worked his way through school, he did plumbing and mechanical work for an HVAC company. As he neared his graduation in 1987, Texas Instruments was recruiting on-campus. He attended an event and was invited to sit in on a facilities management presentation because of his resume.

Russell Thompson | Executive Director of Utilities and Engineering, Interim Vice President of Operations | Duke University

It was a career-changing event—Thompson moved to Dallas and joined TI in June 1987. In 2000, he was promoted to central utilities manager for its 250-acre campus with more than 10 million square feet of semiconductor factories, labs and office space. He led a team of 60 that included engineers, technicians, operators and mechanics.

When he joined Duke, Thompson was tasked with building the utilities and engineering team. He’s since redefined team members’ roles as they work to make the campus more energy efficient and sustainable.

“I’m driven to always improve anything I encounter,” he says. “It leads me in my job—I tell my folks that change is the only constant. I know that’s not comfortable for most people, so I also need to provide some level of assurance and comfort that we all know where we’re going.”

View this feature in the Blueprint Vol. VI 2023 Edition here.

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