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Grad students plan energy ‘dashboard’ at UC Berkeley

24 November 2008 3 Comments

By Will Jason  —

What is the cost of leaving a computer on overnight? Two graduate students hope questions like that will help translate energy use into terms that everyone at University of California, Berkeley can understand.

Sam Borgeson and Omar Khan — students in building science and computer science, respectively — want to make campus energy use more transparent. They are gathering data on the energy used every day at dozens of campus buildings. Then they plan to display the results at a kiosk in the Free Speech Movement Cafe, in the center of campus.

Their aim, according to Borgeson, is to help people understand how their behaviors affect the amount of energy used in campus buildings.

“We’ll know how much energy is being used down to the espresso machine and the outlets that people are using to sit down with their coffee and plug their laptops in,” Borgeson said.

The project, proposed by Borgeson and Khan, and known as the Berkeley Campus Dashboard, is funded by a $75,000 university grant. It is part of a U.C. Berkeley campaign to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by at least a quarter by 2014, according to Lisa McNeilly, the university’s director of sustainability.

“In the short run, a lot of our focus on achieving those reductions is through energy efficiency,” McNeilly said.

U.C. Berkeley is not the first university to create an energy dashboard. Several institutions, such as Oberlin College in Ohio, have tracked energy consumption in dormitories, holding contests to see which dorm can cut back the most. The problem, according to some observers, is that sometimes students return to their old habits once the contests are over, causing energy use to rebound.

Michael Murray is an Oberlin graduate who worked on the competition. Now he is the president of Oakland-based Lucid Design Group, which has exported the Oberlin dashboard to other universities, and to companies such as Yahoo Inc. He acknowledged that consumption tends to rebound after a contest, but said dashboards can still affect people’s attitude toward energy in the long-term.

“Once you’re out of the competition people breath a sigh of relief and turn the lights back on, but that’ doesn’t necessarily mean that the effect has disappeared,” he said.

Borgeson said the U.C. Berkeley project will focus on comparing patterns in individual buildings, and will help identify realistic changes that can be made. Borgeson and Khan have already developed a prototype Web site with real-time data on energy use in seven buildings.

They are working with the university to gather more data, and hope to eventually include up to 70 buildings, most of them non-residential. The final dashboard could also include a way for building occupants to note why more or less energy was used then expected — “the computer lab was used on Sunday,” or “the lights were dimmed last week.”

Borgeson said displaying the data in a central location like a cafe will help spark discussion about what happens inside different buildings around campus. A stationary bike connected to an electricity meter — still a maybe at this point — could show people the scale of the data they are looking at, he said.

“We’re helping people viscerally and collectively understand how much a kilowatt-hour is,” Borgeson said.

It is not clear how much energy could be saved by changing individual behavior. According to McNeilly, behavior only accounts for up to 20 percent of the university’s efficiency goals. The rest will have to come from technology and facility upgrades. But with the university’s budget squeezed, changing behavior could be one of the cheapest was to start cutting back on energy use, McNeilly said.

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