Kill-A-Watt: A Campaign to Increase Energy Efficiency on the Columbia University Campus

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Incentive-Based Energy Efficiency

The Problem

In one word, the problem is apathy. Of course, there are some students that are highly self-motivated and conscious of their actions and of the environment, and are energy efficient because of this. Most students, however, are not so inherently ‘energy conscious.’ Currently, there is no reason why a student needs to conserve energy in their dorm room– it makes no difference in the life of a student how much energy they use. Whether they are incredibly wasteful or incredibly conservative in their energy use, at the end of the day the student has no responsibility to pay for the electricity they consume. There is no financial disadvantage to using a lot of energy, and no advantage to being conservative.
The importance of Incentive

In order to achieve results on a large scale, there must be an incentive for students to be more energy efficient when they normally would not be. Simply telling them that being energy efficient is “better” is not enough – there must be an incentive to motivate those students who are not inherently energy conscious.

The incentive must be something that most students care about, something important enough to get them to start thinking about their energy use. The incentive must be valued campus-wide. Financial incentive, for example, would not be a reasonable solution as it would provide motivation only to selective parts of the student body, not necessarily the student body as a whole.

Barnard’s Unique Incentive

Q: What can Barnard offer students that every student wants but costs the college nothing?

What do all students want that Barnard can provide them with at little to no cost in return for being energy efficient?

A: Better Barnard Housing Selection numbers!

Every spring, Barnard students go through the stress and hassle of getting Housing for the next year. Friendships are broken, hours are spent planning and strategizing over housing arrangements. The housing lottery system leaves very little agency to the individual student, and can be a very stressful procedure. Housing is very important to the students because there is such a discrepancy between the possible living situations at Barnard.
Housing could be a very motivating incentive for students. It is the ultimate motivation tool for Barnard, as well, because it is so important to students yet the procedure for assigning housing could be changed at no cost to the school. If being more energy efficient corresponded to getting better housing, students would be far more conscious of their energy use.

How would it work?

The concept of the incentive based housing system is fairly simple. Every Barnard student would receive an “energy number” which corresponds to their energy use over an academic year. Instead of being a totally random housing lottery, housing would be assigned based on energy numbers. The less energy a student uses, the smaller her energy number becomes, which means that she goes higher up on the list and chooses housing earlier. A very energy inefficient student receives a larger energy number and goes further down on the housing list, choosing a room after more energy efficient students.

Technical Implementation

In order for the energy efficiency incentive system to work, there needs to be a way to accurately monitor and record the energy use of individual students. There seem to be many options for this. Although this exact type of monitoring system is not currently on the market, monitoring systems could be set up using components from various companies that do manufacture energy monitoring chips and the like. It seems that the easiest and cheapest way to achieve this would be to attach these monitoring chips into the wall sockets (and if more than one socket is connected to the same wiring in the same room, then you would only need one), which would send “packets” of information via the electrical lines to a central computer in each building. From there, the information could be easily disseminated and used in any way via the internet. I have been told that this would be possible for under $10 a socket, without any wholesale discount. If Barnard were to buy these on a large scale, they would be much less expensive.
This type of product has never been manufactured before. However, the technology is available and in existence. The components would need to be assembled in a way that has not been done before, but it would be technically possible with today’s technology to monitor the energy use of students.

This page has been created and published by a Columbia University student, faculty or staff member as part of course or other requirements. The ideas and information expressed in this publication have not been approved or authorized by Columbia University, and the University shall not be liable for any damages whatsoever resulting from any action arising in connection with its publication. Columbia University is not responsible for the contents of any off-site information referenced herein.