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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Book of Matthew: Get smart about energy use

Published: March 11, 2011
Section: Opinions

If you ask a group of Brandeis students to tell you how much electricity their residence halls consume each day, you’ll probably get a lot of blank stares and, if you’re lucky, a few ballpark guesses.

But if you ask students at Harvard, or at Yale, or even at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, they’ll be able to give you an accurate answer with the click of a button. Their schools, and a growing number of schools around the country, are able to do this with the help of Lucid Design Group, Inc., a self-described “cleantech software company” whose Building Dashboard® program uses “smart meters” to measure a building’s energy usage accurately and display the results in real time.

For any school that wishes to reduce its environmental impact, this technology is critical and, luckily, we won’t be lagging behind the crowd for very long. Enter Sam Porter ’14, who plans to bring Lucid’s meters to Brandeis.

Porter got the idea back in the fall while taking Professor Laura Goldin’s “Greening the Ivory Tower” class—in which students study and develop environmentally sustainable projects for Brandeis campus. Many of these projects have, in fact, been implemented, most notably the popular ‘DeisBikes program that was launched in March 2009. Porter previously had some experience with smart meters in people’s homes and he wondered if they could be used on a large scale.

He proposed the project to the Brandeis Sustainability Fund board and was recently granted $26,000. On top of that, Facilities Services has promised to pay an additional annual fee toward the project, in recognition of its potential benefits.

The importance of reducing Brandeis’ energy consumption cannot be overstated. University buildings, like all buildings in Waltham, receive their electricity from NSTAR’s electrical distribution system, according to Brandeis Energy Manager William Bushey. Most of this energy—which is considerable—is generated by the burning of fossil fuels, such as coal and natural gas, while only a small percentage comes from renewable sources. This is a continuing problem, not only because energy prices are rising at a time when the university is dealing with severe financial difficulties, but also because of the environmental impact of continuing to release large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Last week, a NASA-funded, U.S. Jet Propulsion Laboratory-led study found that polar ice sheets are melting more quickly than previously thought, which could lead to a one-foot sea level increase by 2050.

This trend threatens coastal cities, island nations and weather patterns worldwide—and our complicity in its growth is clear. If energy companies will not change their ways quickly enough, we must change ours.

“The best way to reduce consumption is to make people aware,” Porter told me as he guided me through the Hamilton College Building Dashboard website.

It was surprisingly user-friendly and quite informative. Clearly, colleges like Hamilton have decided that the best way to get students to make behavioral changes and save energy is to give them as much information as possible. I was able to pinpoint a specific campus building and see how many kilowatt-hours it had consumed during the course of that day, the past week, the past month or even the past year. I could also change the site’s settings to display the amount of carbon dioxide the building emitted or the cost, in dollars, of all those kilowatt-hours (calculated using information from the school’s energy provider).

Did you know that, at the time of this writing, Hamilton’s Root Residence Hall has used 3,518 kilowatt-hours so far this week? Or that all this power requires the emission of 3,191 pounds of carbon dioxide—about 40 pounds per person? The students who live there do.

The Building Dashboard site also allows users to monitor closely their progress over time. Schools can set energy budgets, with the Dashboard keeping track of how closely building residents are sticking to them. And once on the network, it’s easy for schools to organize conservation competitions between buildings or even entire campuses. Think “Do It In The Dark,” only bigger: This is conservation for the 21st century.

But it’s not just a game—it actually works. Last year, when Hamilton students organized one such campus-wide competition, the winning dorm cut its energy consumption by 40 percent over two weeks. The runner-ups weren’t too far behind. Overall, the competition saved the college $6,000 in energy costs and reduced its carbon dioxide output by as much as 60,000 pounds.

It’s called the “Prius effect” on the Lucid website, and it may sound familiar to anyone who has driven the popular car. Like most hybrids, a Toyota Prius comes equipped with dashboard displays that show real-time gas mileage statistics, encouraging drivers to adjust their habits and get more distance out of every gallon. Something similar occurs when people use the Building Dashboard, Porter said: As students observe how their behavior influences energy usage, they are more willing to change it.

Of course, there is an obvious catch, which has kept Porter busy as he attempts to organize the Brandeis installation. For the Building Dashboard to be most effective, students need to know about it.

Porter hopes to accomplish this by encouraging campus Eco-Reps to spread the word and get other students in the habit of regularly checking the soon-to-be-online Brandeis Building Dashboard. He also wants to install a Lucid touch screen “kiosk” in the Shapiro Campus Center that students could access any time they walk by.

The first smart meters will be installed in Massell Quad and the Village, according to Bushe, and the system itself is expected to be operational by mid-May. If all goes well, Porter believes that the university will be willing to increase their investment in the project and install more meters throughout campus.

“No carbon dioxide is the ultimate goal,” Porter told me. We’re well on our way.