Short dorm memory: Can software stoke college kids to save power?

The Compete to Reduce contest pits institutions of higher learning against each other in a water-and-energy save-a-thon. But can it change habits for good?

Over a two-month period, 200,000 students from 100 schools around the United States saved 1.74 gigawatt-hours of electricity, avoiding 2.6 million pounds of CO2 emissions generating $157,925 in energy savings. That's enough to power to take 151 U.S. homes off the grid for a year. And they did it all in the hopes of winning the honor of being the greenest school.

Imagine how much energy they could have saved if a few kegs were thrown into the pot.

The contest, called Compete to Reduce, pits colleges against each other to see which can cut power and water use in dorms by the largest amount. This year's top winner is Bowling Green State University, which saved 237,240 kilowatt-hours, and won continued access to Lucid software's Building Dashboard real-time electricity monitoring for two residence halls on its campus. The software is provided to all participating schools for free during the contest, and it's the tool used to measure their energy-saving progress.

Competitions have been used as a tool for encouraging energy savings in buildings for a number of years. Many startups used the concept of competition as a way to stoke interest in their energy monitoring tools for home use -- as in, buy this energy management system or gadget and see how much energy you can save compared to Joe down the block.

To date, I've not met anyone who actually uses a building energy management system, let alone someone who is in a race against his or her neighbor to be the energy-saving king or queen of the block.

But taking this approach to college campuses makes good sense. For one thing, you've got a huge audience and young and hopefully energy-aware participants. For another, university students are generally still in the prime of the competitive, school-spirit, go team phases of their lives. And schools love to hate on beat each other. So it's a win-win.

The Lucid software allowed students to track their progress in real time during the competition, and the dashboard has social media plug-ins. Students could use these to invite people to a "power off" night in the dorms (wait, is that code for a kegger?), or pose challenges to one another to reduce water or energy use.

But now that the contest has wrapped up, what next? Off all the top teams, only Bowling Green students will have access to the Lucid software, and in only two of its dorms, going forward. And they won't be charting their energy use against other schools, as the software allowed them to do during the competition. So the carrot is gone. It's possible, I suppose, that these two months have really changed the habits of dorm-living students across the country. But I'm a bit dubious.

When you break it down, the savings were about 8 gallons of water over two months, and about 8.7 kilowatt hours of electricity per person over two months. (I looked at my bill -- OK, so I'm competitive -- and my husband and I used about 4.6 kilowatt hours each day during our last bill cycle. That said, I'm not sure we could shave off that much over two months. But I'm guessing the dorms had a lot of low hanging fruit to pick.)

Now, if someone could hold a contest in which a $1000 were knocked off a student's loans for, say, every kilowatt hour of electricity he or she saves...

Image: Lucid's Building Dashboard software

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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