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Researchers test strategies to motivate students to save energy

Originally posted in UCLA Today
Written by Meg Sullivan

Growing up in a household where money was tight, Juanita Liuag remembers being conscious of the need to conserve utilities, a value she has tried to pass on to her two daughters.

“I was always the one who said, ‘Turn off the lights!’ said Liuag, a San Diego elementary school secretary.

But the tables turned suddenly last summer after her daughter Stephanie returned from her sophomore year in UCLA’s Rieber Terrace.

“When she came home, she was reminding us about turning out the lights,” Liuag said with a laugh. “I was so surprised.”

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Liuag’s zeal is the consequence of a landmark study underway at UCLA. The study, Engage, takes the university’s expertise in environmental economics and remote sensing and combines it with campus sustainability efforts and undergraduate support for environmental causes. Engage is systematically testing ways to instill conservation-minded behavior — and the preliminary results show students are reducing their energy use when they can see just how much power they’re using, and a little friendly competition with their floormates appears to make them cut back even more.

Real-time energy monitoring

The project outfits dorm rooms with specially designed monitors that allow Bruins to track their own electrical use in real time. The equipment measures the amount of electricity used to power lights, heating or air-conditioning, and anything plugged into electrical outlets, including mini-refrigerators, computers and television sets. Students can see the results on password-protected websites designed by Social Science Computing. In addition to their own current and average electricity use, they can see how much electricity other students are burning.

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“Students in the residence halls [normally] have no clue how much electricity they’re using,” said William Kaiser, director of UCLA’s Actuated, Sensing, Coordinated and Embedded Networked Technologies (ASCENT). “This is the first time college students have had information like this.”

The project started last spring with a pilot program. It expanded in fall quarter to 102 undergraduates in 66 rooms in Rieber Terrace, Rieber Vista and Hedrick Summit. The study continues through the end of the academic year. Next year researchers will move the project to graduate student housing, an undertaking being billed as the largest real-time feedback experiment ever undertaken in the U.S.

“We want to figure out if providing this kind of information is enough to inspire that ‘Ah-ha!’ moment, where you say, ‘I didn’t realize I was using that much! I should cut back,’” said Robert Gilbert, a partner in the project as sustainability manager of Housing and Hospitality Services.

Using feedback to curb greenhouse gases

With residential and commercial buildings accounting for more than two-thirds of U.S. electrical usage, this is no idle question. Electricity generation accounts for more than 40 percent of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions, a greenhouse gas implicated in longterm climate change. Recent research has suggested that changing consumers’ behavior could reduce residential energy consumption by anywhere from 22 percent to 30 percent.

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Facing such a challenge, utility companies across the country increasingly are requiring builders to include smart meters to measure energy usage in new construction. More than 76 million smart meters have been installed around the globe, according to PG&E, the nation’s largest smart-meter user. Yet despite such enthusiasm, research so far has provided conflicting accounts of whether these feedback mechanisms encourage conservation. A 2006 study conducted in Japan found total electric consumption decreased by 18 percent when households were presented with real time feedback, but a 1987 experiment in U.S. showed the opposite: Usage increased by 5.5 percent.

“There’s a lot of hype about feedback, but there’s not enough serious research to justify the investment,” said Neil Lessem, project researcher and a Ph.D. candidate in economics. “You’re giving people more information in a world where they’re already overloaded with information. Do they care, and do they understand? We’re trying to get to the bottom of that question.”

Ideal study subjects

Pricing is one way to encourage conservation.

“If we can get people to pay a high enough price for utilities, then we can get them to reduce their consumption,” said Magali Delmas, Engage’s principal investigator and a management professor in both UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and Anderson School of Management.

But boosting utility prices isn’t always politically viable. In the United States, utilities are typically subsidized, masking their true cost to consumers and diminishing the incentive to conserve, said the environmental economist. “The question then becomes what else can you do?”

That’s what makes UCLA undergrads ideal study subjects, she said. “Here, students don’t pay their electricity bills. Electricity is provided with their residence, so researching their utility makes for a very clean experiment. What moves them to conserve could be expected to influence users of heavily subsidized utilities.”

On a campus with a bustling hospital and numerous high-powered research labs, student residences are not the top consumers of electricity, accounting for only 5 percent of UCLA’s total electricity consumption. And a significant portion of that energy is used to run the dining halls, Gilbert said. The average daily energy consumption of each dorm resident is only equivalent to powering four incandescent light blubs non-stop. But the monthly average (182 kilowatt hours) is very close to California’s per capita monthly average (201 kilowatt hours), further underscoring the suitability of college students as study subjects.

Until now, researchers haven’t been able to monitor electricity usage for a single room because most conventional feedback systems monitor use at the circuit level, not at the source.

“You can’t just say, ‘I’m going to look at all the energy used in this one room’ and go and check a single circuit,” Gilbert said. “Our lights are on a separate circuit from our heating and cooling system and from plugs. So you have to get three lines, which each spanning multiple rooms. It ends up being very complicated.”

Wiring the dorms

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That’s where Victor L. Chen comes in. Currently working toward a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, he already has several environmental-sensing projects under his belt, including a system for monitoring the number of pedestrians and vehicles entering campus.

With a modest grant from the Green Initiative Fund, a self-imposed tax on UCLA undergraduates to fund environmental programs on campus, Chen built the Engage system from off-the-shelf components. Undergraduate volunteers easily installed the system without altering walls or wiring. And the task of maintaining it is done by undergraduates in a UCLA Action Research Team (ART), a collaborative student-staff-faculty sustainability program.

Chen built an interface that allows residents to monitor their electrical use from a website. In all, the assembly costs about a tenth that of a commercially available smart meter, said Kaiser.

Students cut back energy use

In last spring’s pilot test, researchers found that students with the Engage mechanism cut back on light use by 20-30 percent, a finding they replicated this fall.

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The actual impact, however, was minimal since lighting only constitutes about 5 percent of energy use in a dorm room. In fact, heating and air conditioning account for the lion’s share of power consumed in a dorm room. So this year’s experiment has focused on ways to inspire HVAC conservation. Chen added a pie chart to the computer dashboard, enabling undergrads to see not only how much energy they’re using, but also how they’re using it, whether it’s in lighting, HVAC or devices plugged into wall sockets.

Researchers then introduced an element of peer pressure and prestige. They tacked up charts showing energy savings — or abuses — clear to dorm mates. Green dots went beside the room numbers with below-average use; higher-than-average use got red dots. While the final results aren’t in, researchers say that as the quarter wore on, students’ energy use definitely got greener. It’s looking like students cut their HVAC use by about 30 percent, Delmas said.

“This shows that status and social pressure is a powerful tool,” said Delmas, the environmental economist. “That’s how the Prius became such a popular car. People like the status of demonstrating how green they are, and we believe we’ve captured that impulse.”

During spring quarter, the team will be evaluating whether this one-time intervention leads to persistent behavioral change.

“Through social status rewards we have induced large behavioral changes,” Lessem said, “but it is unclear whether this has led to the formation of new habits, or whether people need constant motivation to conserve.”

Next stop: the real world

Armed with a recently awarded $330,000 grant from the California Air Resource Board, the experiment will next move to University Village (UV), 1,010 units of graduate family housing located three miles south of campus. Over the summer, Chen and Lessem will install monitoring equipment in 150 apartments for married students, most of whom have children.

At UV, residents pay for electricity and have an array of household appliances and electronics — ovens, coffeemakers, vacuums, entertainment centers – that make life at UV closer to a real-world setting, the researchers believe.

Researchers hope to learn which creature comforts consume the most energy in these households and what energy-saving strategies will work there. And because UV residents are ethnically diverse, the researchers hope to see whether these conservation strategies need to be fine-tuned to residents’ ethnic backgrounds.

Ultimately, they hope the findings will provide insight for utility companies.

“I don’t think this research would’ve been possible anywhere else,” said Delmas. “We needed the study subjects, the right engineers, the right social scientists, and we needed housing to be involved and helping. Thankfully, we have all these elements here at UCLA.”