Lighting upgrades save Cornell $2.9 million, reduce carbon footprint

Campus Sustainability Office November 7, 2019
Staff installing street lights
Markus O. Reynolds, a Line Crew member, installs LED street lamps during the lighting upgrade initiative in May 2019 outside of Upson Hall on the Cornell Ithaca campus. 

On the road to carbon neutrality, does changing out a lightbulb really matter?  On a campus with its own zip code, the answer is yes. 

The Cornell Energy Conservation Initiative completed a multi-phase comprehensive lighting upgrade earlier this year which replaced lighting in indoor and outdoor spaces with energy-efficient LED bulbs.  The upgrades, which began in 2014, have saved the campus over 18,000 tons of carbon and $2.9 million to date.  

The project is part of ongoing investments in energy efficiency to help reach carbon neutrality by 2035.  With the project fully completed, the new lighting reduces the campus carbon footprint by nearly 3% annually. 

Lighting projects have a short payback period, making them an ideal candidate for energy and carbon savings. The ECI team targeted both internal building lighting including fixtures in research labs, and external lighting, including streetlamps. Both athletic and outdoor lighting spaces on campus were previously using metal halide fixtures that were prone to failure and low light output in addition to being energy inefficient. 

 “This project demonstrates the value of sustainable decision making in operations,” said Mark Howe, Director of Utilities Distribution and Energy Management. “The lighting project will successfully save the institution energy, carbon emissions, and money.  The upgrades have also improved the quality of lighting in lab and work spaces.”

Carbon Savings


Graph showing cumulative carbon savings over time between present and 2024
The lighting upgrades significantly reduce Cornell's annual greenhouse gas footprint, helping the campus move towards carbon neutrality by 2035

The upgrades will remove over 45,500 metric tons of CO2e from the campus carbon footprint in the next five years alone.  The resulting impact is equivalent to removing 9,660 vehicles from the road, or powering 5,450 homes in New York State, for a year.  

And, once the new lighting’s energy savings has paid for itself, Cornell will realize $16 million in savings over the lifetime of their use.

Financial Savings


Graph showing financial savings accumulated between present and 2024
Cornell University uses The Green Revolving Investment Tracking System (GRITS 2.0), a project-level energy, financial and carbon savings database, to track energy conservation projects and visualize results.   The  financial savings graph shows realized savings to date and additional savings over the next five years (though the bulbs in most projects will last well beyond this projection and realize additional savings during that time).

The payback period for the combined projects is projected at 3.5 years, with early data confirming the projects will pay themselves back by 2020. With an anticipated lifespan of 10-20 years for the lightbulbs, the project will pay for itself three times over by the end of 2033 after accounting for installation costs.  Over 160,000 LED lightbulbs were installed.

Project Phases

The project included six major phases:  

  • Athletics Lighting  – Completed July 2014
    Lights were installed in Teagle, Friedman Wrestling, Grumman, Barton, Bartels, Helen Newman, Lynah Rink, Oxley Equestrian and Bartels. Over 650 metal halide fixtures were replaced resulting in a 70% reduction in lighting energy use and annual energy cost savings of $125,000.

  • Interior Tube Lighting – Completed July 2017
    Over 150,000 interior florescent lights were installed across dozens of campus buildings. The replacement project began in 2014, and will result in annual energy cost savings of $635,000.  This phase received nearly $1 million in incentive money from NYSEG, the local utility company. 

  • Street Lighting - Phase 1 completed July 2018 and Phase 2 completed March 2019
    Starting in 2016, the electrical distribution team began upgrading pole mounted street lighting.  Today, one-third of the campus street lights have been upgraded, at a total cost of $450,000 and energy cost savings of $50,000.  Cornell has received approximately $10,000 in incentives, and will continue to apply for the remaining $1 million of work.

  • Stocking Hall Lab – Completed February 2019
    Labs in the Stocking Hall addition were comprehensively updated.  The old fixtures were inefficient and had a high failure rate, meaning the new upgrades also save maintenance time and reduce lab lighting issues.  The project has just under a 5-year payback. 

  • Exterior Building Lighting – Completed May 2019
    Building exterior illumination is important for the safety of everyone on campus, so outdoor lighting degradation with previous fixtures was a serious concern. 1,700 inefficient fixtures were replaced. Following completion, the project will receive $70,000 in incentives and is anticipated to save $90,000 annually.

The goal of the Energy Conservation Initiative, which has been in place at Cornell since 1985, is to minimize Cornell's energy use and associated environmental impacts in a cost-effective way. The program focuses on the Ithaca, NY campus and is integral in the campus Climate Action Plan

The next major ECI project will focus on updating heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) controls in campus buildings, which require continual improvement to maximize efficiency and occupant comfort. 
The team is also looking to maximize heat recovery in campus buildings, or the process of reducing the amount of energy needed to comfortably heat or cool a building using outside air. 

Questions about the Energy Conservation Initiative can be directed to