Lights go out on the Hill for energy competition

By Alison Hewitt
Originally posted in UCLA Today

No sacrifice is too small. Students are unplugging their cellphone chargers, flipping off their light switches and throwing flashlight parties for the Hill’s fourth annual Do It In The Dark Energy-Saving Competition. Each dorm has a Team Green coordinator leading the charge, spreading the word by hosting lightbulb swaps or going door-to-door dressed as a vampire to educate other Bruins about “vampire power” (the energy-sucking power drain caused by plugged-in electronics, even when devices are turned off), said Rebecca Miller, the sustainability analyst for UCLA Housing and Hospitality Services.

“By having this huge energy-saving competition, it’s a more fun, exciting way to teach people about the actual environmental problem and how their personal behavior can change things,” Miller said. “Every year, the competition results in energy savings, and almost every single residence hall sees a reduction in energy use.”

Last year, the winning dorm for 2011 slashed its electricity usage by a whopping 31 percent. Overall in 2011, the residence halls saved 102,000 kilowatt hours, or 10 percent of the Hill’s residential energy use, double what they saved in 2010. That was with 15 percent of students signed up to participate. This year, with almost two weeks to go, 20 percent of the students have already signed a pledge to save energy.

becky miller

“The fact that last year we saw double the energy savings without doubling the pledges was very impressive and says a lot about the student’s growing engagement,” Miller said.

The Office of Residential Life provides the energy-saving lightbulbs for bulb swaps and Miller advises the Team Green coordinators on implications of electricity use, in addition to behavioral basics, like using heaters and air conditioners less or not at all, taking the stairs instead of elevators and unplugging energy-sucking electronics.

Miller also goes from dorm to dorm once a week with a map and a flashlight to find the electric meters – up to seven per building – hidden in basement utility closets or outdoor cages. She keeps track of how much energy each building uses so that rankings can be shared, riling up some competitive spirit.

Those weekly updates are a good motivator, according to a study by Professor Magali Delmas, an environmental economist with the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. She put individual energy meters into certain dorm rooms last year and posted charts on how much energy was being saved per room, a strategy that spurred more energy conservation. “This showed that status and social pressure is a powerful tool,” said Delmas. “That’s how the Prius became such a popular car. People like the status of demonstrating how green they are.”


At the end of the month, each dorm’s February energy use will be compared to its three-month average to see who saved the most energy. The winning dorm is chosen by a combination of the highest percentages of pledges and of energy saved. Up for grabs is a $500 party fund.

“We’re winning so far,” said sophomore Celebration “Cell” Ferguson, the Team Green coordinator for Hedrick Summit, the dorm with the highest energy savings last year. She spends eight hours a week getting her dorm-mates to pledge, signing up 60 percent of her dorm’s 900 students so far. On the pledge, they can choose from a list of energy-saving measures to take, or they can write their own pledges.

“Some of the things people write are pretty creative and funny,” Ferguson said. “A lot of people say they will stop showering, period. Others say they’ll literally do things in the dark, like floss – everything that doesn’t have to do with reading or studying.”

Students are also opting to study at Powell Library, saving their own kilowatts and thermal units. Half of the hallway lights that used to be on 24/7 are off in many buildings, and some Team Green coordinators are handing out shower timers, to save not just the energy used to heat the water, but the water itself.


For the Super Bowl, energy misers hosted viewing parties in the lounges instead of having students watch the game in their rooms on multiple TVs. “They harnessed the power of community and hung out while also saving energy,” Miller said.

Proving that going green can actually be fun, the coordinators are making a final push Feb. 28 by hosting an all-Hill outdoor flashlight party with flashlight tag and other games.

But it’s not all fun and games. Getting people to change their habits is the biggest challenge, said Elizabeth Oh, a junior transfer student who is coordinator for Delta Terrace.

“It’s really convenient to waste,” Oh said. “People are busy with their lives, academics and personal issues, and they don’t always have time to learn the impacts of their habits. It’s hard when it’s cold to convince people to turn off the heater.”

But she’s seeing people come out of their shells. Students who wouldn’t have interfered before are reminding friends to turn off their lights.

“The idea of a competition allows people to spread the word from a different approach,” Oh said. “It’s not just an academic and moral approach. Now there’s a more social, competitive approach, and that reaches a different crowd.”