Yale undergraduates help drive energy efficiency on campus

March 29, 2016

While the Yale Carbon Charge Project is turning campus administrators, faculty, and staff into independent energy managers, a group of undergraduate students, in traditional Yale fashion, is turning those plans upside down—by engaging with the participating buildings as ad hoc energy managers.

Yale’s Carbon Charge Project is designed to use financial incentives to encourage energy efficiency by putting a price on the amount of carbon associated with each department’s energy usage. The price tag is generating more interest from building occupants across Yale in reducing their consumption.

Ted Wittenstein, Executive Director of Yale Young Global Scholars and a member of the Steering Committee for the Carbon Charge Task Force, was quick to look for ways to make his own building more efficient. So he coordinated an Energy Survey of Betts House.

Energy Surveys are a component of Yale’s energy strategy, and are regularly conducted by Yale Energy Management. Simply walking through buildings with a laser thermometer and a watchful eye is an informative experience. However, when staff examined Betts House, they brought along several students from the Sustainability Service Corps Energy Squad. These students, hired by the Office of Sustainability, work to promote awareness of ways to conserve energy around campus.

“The Energy Squad has done Energy Surveys in the residential colleges, but it’s a different experience in an office setting,” remarked Sherry Li (YC ‘17). “People are really interested in energy efficiency right now, which makes it really gratifying. Our observations and recommendations translated into tangible changes and improvements.”

Betts House represented a rare opportunity for these students to explore energy efficiency. The Sustainability Service Corps is a group of students who are deeply interested in energy, and Yale is using its campus as a living lab to conduct an experiment with innovative ways to encourage energy conservation. Combined with Yale’s experienced energy engineers and a building with occupants who are eager and willing to change behavior, an educator would be hard pressed to design a more productive opportunity for students to try their hand at energy management. Conditions aligned to provide buildings, people, and an academic climate uniquely tuned to the students’ interests.

“Yale’s Carbon Charge is becoming a powerful educational tool,” said Ryan Laemel, the Carbon Charge Project Coordinator. “We see these energy surveys—where students are interacting with energy engineers and applying what they learn in the classroom—as one of many exciting ways our community can plug into all that the Carbon Charge has to offer.”

Walking through the building, their findings were more and less intricate than one might expect depending on where you look. Some of the students’ suggestions were challenging but actionable: think programming thermostats and scheduling air handling units to quiet down during low-occupancy hours. Others were the low-hanging fruit everyone loves to grab. For instance, in some of the building’s unoccupied areas, phones and printers were plugged in. Unplugging these devices is simple but can translate into savings over time. The students also found an unused space heated to 75 degrees, highlighting an opportunity to dial back set points and align them with the university’s standards.

These findings are common in energy surveys at Yale. While some opportunities are complex, involving equipment and programming, and take time to resolve, others are easy fixes. We all have our own version of the phone that we somehow never get around to unplugging. The students wrote up a 16-page report on their findings and made recommendations for how the building can improve on its recent progress in energy conservation. The SSC is scheduled to do another Energy Survey in Woodbridge Hall in April.

“Teaching and learning is at Yale’s heart. When we choose to be leaders in our operational practices, we’re creating an opportunity to teach our students to lead,” said Wittenstein. “These surveys are entry points for larger conversations about energy efficiency and carbon pricing, and help bring students to the cutting edge of the field.”

These efforts support Yale’s participation as part of the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition to engage in a global dialogue on how to combat the challenges of climate change. Read more.