Purdue Profiles: Robert Olson

October 5, 2010

Bob Olson, senior director of the Energy, Engineering and Sustainability Department, stands in front of Marriott Hall, which will house the Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management. Once completed, Marriott Hall will be LEED certified. LEED is Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a nationally prominent set of programs and standards.

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Bob Olson approaches his work as senior director of the Energy, Engineering and Sustainability Department from a broader perspective than most. His experiences working with small construction companies, large industrial firms and the U.S. departments of Defense and Energy give him the diverse background necessary for such an all-encompassing position.

Olson has lived all over the country from Oklahoma to Washington, D.C., but now, along with a team of more than 170 people, he is working to improve Purdue’s sustainability and energy management efforts while supporting its mission of education and research.

What brought you to Purdue?

I’d done some consulting at Purdue and enjoyed my experiences at the university, so when I saw the university engineer position open up, I was interested. A campus composed of 160 primary buildings with both old and new structural, mechanical and electrical systems presented an exciting professional opportunity. I was the university engineer from 2006 until I began my new position this past April.

Why did Physical Facilities create the Energy, Engineering and Sustainability Department?

The creation of the Energy, Engineering and Sustainability Department allowed us to organize existing operational units performing closely related functions into a single cohesive department. Our department is now structured to address both the production and consumption portions of the energy management process. This approach has provided us with outstanding opportunities to maximize efficiency and effectiveness and become more versatile.

As a strategy in the New Synergies strategic plan, as well as one of Physical Facilities' strategic plan goals, sustainability has been recognized as a priority throughout our campus community. While working in support of the University's educational and research mission, it is the responsibility of physical facilities to lead energy management efforts. The Energy, Engineering and Sustainability Department is well-positioned to actively address both of these areas of campus-wide focus.

In the area of energy management, we must maximize opportunities to conserve by reducing energy consumption. For example, one morning in May, at 9:30 we were already producing 26,500 tons of chilled water and our firm capacity is only 29,000 tons. For operational, fiscal and sustainable reasons, we must find ways to reduce our consumption of everything from water to steam.

Are there any specific goals queued up for the EES department?

We are currently in the process of developing a Sustainable Energy Management Plan in support of University goals and the Sustainability Strategic Plan. The state has approved us for $15 million in bond money to complete energy savings projects that have a payback of 10 years or less. Most of our projects will pay back in five years. We’re looking at temperature building control system optimization and pursuing LEED certification for most new buildings. We also want to examine how we can enhance partnerships with other departments and explore green alternative fuel sources.

What is your favorite part of your job?

The variety. One day we could be focused on routine operations and the next we’re assisting with a major initiative like the Ten Year Capital Improvement Plan. I also enjoy the position because I have the opportunity to interact with a number of stakeholders throughout campus. In addition to our energy, engineering, and sustainability focus, we regularly contribute to new construction and building renovation projects. 

Having been university engineer and now with your new position, are you extremely familiar with campus buildings?

Due to the size and complexity of our campus, I'm continuously learning about our facilities. As a whole, the members of the Energy, Engineering and Sustainability Department are true experts on utilities and campus buildings and their operating systems. Our staff members are extremely knowledgeable and some of them have been at the University for 20 to 30 years or more.  I rely on the team's expertise on a daily basis.

Do you have any personal goals that this position allows you to fulfill?

I am particularly interested in increasing connections between our operations and student learning. Currently, we have a group of students working on projects similar to what we might give to a new employee. It’s great that we have the chance to provide professional experience and contribute to their education, but at the same time we have the opportunity to learn from the students. Although they are in the early stages of gaining professional experience, I have found the students to be sharp and creative.

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