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Knowing the Score Helps Students Save Energy

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Lance Armstrong never raced without constant radio updates from his coach, letting him know exactly where the competition stood. His now legendary success-seven straight Tour de France victories-proves the point: when competing, information is key.

That's the approach a team of students from Oberlin College took when they set up a competition of their own to explore how to promote energy conservation.

The initial $10,000 funding for the team's sustainability project came from the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) P3 grants program. P3 stands for "people, prosperity, and the planet." (Visit www.epa.gov/p3 for more information on the program.)

The Oberlin research team, which is lead by faculty advisors, proposed to use its P3 grant to test the value of information in resource conservation. Specifically, the team wanted to answer the question: if people could easily track their use of electricity and water, would they then use less of both?

Dorm Versus Dorm

To test their premise, the Oberlin P3 team set up a competition. According to Dr. John E. Petersen, associate professor of environmental studies and biology who served as the team's faculty advisor, 20 dormitories competed to see which could reduce its electricity and water use by the highest percentage.

Students in two of the dorms-Harkness and Fairchild-were set up with access to information on their resource use. Instead of a coach whispering radio transmissions in their ears, the students used real-time energy monitoring instrumentation providing "high-resolution, real-time feedback." At any time of the day or night, dorm residents could consult the monitors in their building's lobby or look on a Web site to see in real time what their water and energy usage were.

The other dorms went low-tech: students on the project team read and reported data on each dorm's respective utility meters weekly.

The DormEnergy Competition Web site (www.oberlin.edu/dormenergy exit EPA) kept students (and anybody else) apprised of usage figures. The site received more than 4,000 hits during the two weeks of the competition.

The benefit of the high-resolution feedback, Petersen explains, is that "the two dorms that had it could make a decision and immediately see its effect on electricity consumption." Conversely, he adds, "Those dorms with only once-a-week feedback could make decisions, but with the infrequency of feedback, they generally couldn't tell whether a certain action was having an effect."

In its P3 application, the Oberlin team of faculty and students proposed a prototype system with three technology components for energy monitoring. Between September 2004 and January 2005, they designed, built, and tested the components, including:

  • off-the-shelf water and energy flow sensors,
  • inexpensive wireless datalogging and networking hardware recently developed for environmental and robotics applications, and
  • networking, database management, and display software developed by the team.

One challenge to designing the dorm competition was the age of the various dormitories. Oberlin dates back to 1833, so there is considerable variation in the different dormitories. "It comes down to the fact that some dorms are inherently more or less efficient," Petersen explains. Thus, it was obvious that each dorm should compete with other dormitories based on its percentage improvement following the introduction of feedback.

Each dorm's baseline water and electricity consumption was recorded for two weeks before the competition period of March 10-24, 2005. For each dorm, consumption during the competition period was then compared to this baseline consumption to derive the measure of improvement.

Everybody Wins with Energy Savings

In the end, the winning dorms were Harkness and Fairchild-the ones with the monitoring equipment developed and installed by the P3 team. These dormitories reduced their electricity use by an average of 56 percent, contrasted with a 13 percent reduction for the other dorms.

In dollar terms, the total saving of 68,500 kWh of electricity by all dormitories during the competition amounted to a savings of $5,100. That's on top of reductions in associated emissions of 148,000 pounds of climate-changing carbon dioxide.

How did they do it? Petersen says that surveys afterward showed that dorms across the campus had been strategizing about how to beat other dorms, through measures that curtailed personal energy use, such as turning off lights and computers when they weren't in use.

"At least one dorm took the radical measure of disabling hallway lights and unplugging the vending machines," he says. One of the most amusing but also irritating events, Petersen says, had to do with one of the "high-resolution feedback" dorms, where students kept turning off the computer that was installed to display the real-time energy usage. "We told them they'd be disqualified from the competition if they unplugged it one more time," he laughs.

Water savings lagged by comparison. The winning dorm reduced its water consumption by 11 percent, but the average reduction among all dorms was only 1.2 percent. However, dormitories saved 20,500 gallons of water, which resulted in another few hundred dollars saved in freshwater and wastewater fees.

From Campus to the Real World

Last May, all 65 P3 teams set up displays on the National Mall in Washington, DC, as part of the EPA's first National Sustainable Design Expo. Petersen's P3 team arrived early to work with contractors who provided electrical power for the event so that they could monitor energy consumption. They were thus able to display the amount of electricity being used throughout the exposition. "We were displaying our wares in real time," he says.

At the expo, the judges from the National Academy of Engineering designated Oberlin among the seven winning campuses. This added another $75,000 in Phase II funding for each school. As a result, some 30 buildings on the Oberlin campus, including 11 new residential houses, have real-time monitoring of energy usage. Petersen says these installations "will enable us to study the effect of feedback on students' attitudes and behaviors for the next 10 to 15 years."

An unexpected benefit of the P3 program has been a different sort of sustainability: the emergence of a business to further resource sustainability on campuses everywhere. Lucid Design Group LLC came into being just before the first P3 grant was awarded, with the goal of providing products and services that make the environmental performance of buildings visible, engaging and easily interpretable to a nontechnical audience.

"At this point, we are already overwhelmed with new clients, including some secondary schools that are under construction," Petersen says. Michael Murray and Vladislav Shunturov, Oberlin graduates on the P3 team, are president and chief technical officer, respectively. Gavin Platt, who will graduate this spring, is a part owner, and Petersen himself serves as director of operations.

Petersen is excited about the potential for moving these products beyond the campus and into the marketplace where they can have real impact on resource conservation. He is convinced that the market is a powerful means of "advancing feedback technologies that serve to make people more aware of and responsible for their resource use."

He and his student have shown the value of information in winning the sustainability race. Lance would approve.

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