by Jack Byrne, Dean of Environmental Affairs and Sustainability & Director of the Franklin Environmental Center, and Prof. Michelle McCauley, Professor of Psychology & Environmental Studies Program Affiliate

The climate crisis has highlighted the need for energy conservation and increased building efficiency. Fossil fuel energy is the main source of climate warming gasses, like carbon dioxide, that trap heat in the atmosphere and drive the extraordinary climate changes we are experiencing. Simply put, the less fossil fuel energy we use, the slower we warm the planet. And, even after we arrive at a predominantly clean, renewable energy future (sooner is better), efficiency and conservation will be important in minimizing our extractive impacts on the planet.

Middlebury’s Energy2028 response to the climate crisis includes a goal of reducing energy use 25% below our 2018 usage by 2028. It’s a challenging goal that requires an institution level approach focused both on our buildings, and on how individuals approach building use. This is a dual strategy of “do it for you” and “do it yourself.” Ideally, energy literate individuals not only support the systems in place, but also take home some valuable insights to save energy in their own habitats.

The energy you don’t use can be thought of as “negawatts” – a term coined by Amory Lovins, former chair and chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute. It represents a unit of energy that you have not used through energy conservation or the use of energy-efficient products. At Middlebury we are fortunate to have access to an array of tools and resources to help us increase our negawatts!

Tensions and Trade-offs

Imagine you have been given control of the Middlebury or Monterey campus energy management system. You have access to infrared flyover imagery to see which buildings are “leaky” and other anomalies. You have meters and systems to control thermostat settings, heating and air conditioning schedules, lighting timers, air handlers for room ventilation, and numerous gauges and dashboards showing what’s going on at any given time, plus data that allows you to track past usage. Your goal is to configure the system to achieve 25% less energy use while assuring programmatic and research needs maintained and building occupants are comfortable and happy.

The technology part of this system is in many ways easier to operate than the human component, especially because “comfortable and happy” varies from person to person. For objective guidance you could turn to the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) and their standard #55 which defines thermal comfort success in commercial buildings as meeting the needs of 80% of occupants.

You could create a highly predictable, controlled environment using energy related mechanical equipment and your energy management system to satisfy those 80% by dialing in optimal conditions for air and radiant temperature, humidity, and air velocity within each space to achieve that goal. But what about the other 20% of occupants who may prefer a different set of comfort conditions? And how about the likelihood that, for most occupants, comfort varies by season and the day’s weather. To meet this challenge  you could adopt an “adaptive comfort” strategy that takes into account factors such as individual metabolic rates, clothing insulation and that allows personal control of one’s space (e.g., operable windows and thermostat access). On the Monterey campus, where the daily temperature swings are considerably smaller on average than on the Vermont campus, your task might be a bit easier.

But user control of comfort settings requires an understanding of how the system works so that individual actions don’t counteract the building’s comfort design. A common challenge in Vermont is a dorm room occupied in winter by students not familiar with the heating system. They might accidently block their baseboard heater with clothing or furniture which prevents heat from radiating into the room. Up goes the thermostat to compensate with little perceivable difference. However, when the objects are subsequently moved, the room temperature rises sharply. To deal with this, students open a window. In a hurry to get to class, the window remains open requiring more heat which warms up their neighbors’ rooms, and they open their windows. From our standpoint, open windows in January are an especially frustrating winter view! To meet this challenge, The Sustainability Solutions Lab has produced a number of outreach campaigns to help students understand their role in energy conservation (as well as how their heating system works).

Electricity is another type of energy use with a significant climate impact and one where opportunities for efficiency and conservation are in the users’ hands. People can choose energy efficient devices, LED lighting, for example, which uses about 75% less electricity for the same brightness than incandescent bulbs and about 25% less than a CFL bulb.

We are also working to help the community be aware of the relative electricity demand of devices (e.g., hair dryers and electric tea kettles require about 1200 watts to run compared to a newer laptop which needs around 50 watts). Additionally, turning things off when not needed can make a big difference, especially with the multiplier effect of hundreds or thousands of such devices in use on our campuses. Furthermore, a surge in demand for electricity can cause utilities to call up power from generating sources that burn fossil fuels less efficiently with bigger carbon footprints. In England, the national utility experiences high demand spikes during half time of soccer matches when football fans turn on the tea kettle. Spreading out the time period when tea is taken could make a noticeable difference in carbon emissions over the course of the soccer season!

Finally, we are a historic campus and old buildings, beautiful as they are, can be challenging to maintain both comfortably and efficiently. There may be no better option than to run the thermal and electrical systems at an undesirable rate to compensate for the “leakiness” of the building. From an energy conscious owner’s perspective the challenge is whether to do a deep energy retrofit, or replace the building with a new one using the latest technology and materials. In some cases the cost difference may be small. Other factors are important too, e.g., the building may have significant historical or sentimental value that warrant restoration and retrofitting to preserve its heritage while improving its efficiencies. The Franklin Environmental Center at Hillcrest, completely renovated in 2007, is an example of this approach. Anecdotally, its occupants find the building  exceedingly comfortable and pleasant while being one of the best energy performers on campus.

A newly renovated residence building at Monterey (787 Munras) has automated features like LED lights in common spaces that will automatically dim if no motion is detected for a certain time. The rooms have windows that open so occupants can operate them to meet their preferences. The rooms’ thermostats can be remotely set but are currently under user control. This is an opportunity for an outreach and education campaigns to motivate and inform occupants how to manage their space for both comfort and efficiency.

One Energy2028 related initiative that combines education, research, and lived experiences on the undergraduate campus is the TEMPO project.  With TEMPO, the Office of Sustainability Integration, Facilities Services  (especially Micheal Moser and Dean Ouellette), Jonathan Kemp (Data Librarian & Scientific Computing Specialist), collaborate with faculty members Julia Berazneva, Peter Mattews, Michelle McCauley, and Andrea Vaccari (all affiliated with the Vermont Center Behavioral Science Research on Climate and Environment ) to create a living – learning lab space within the residential units known as the Townhouses. This space has been configured to allow us not only to monitor electric use in each townhouse, but also to provide visual feedback of current electric use in the form of a LED light strip mounted in each suite’s common area. Thus, we are making the typically invisible (electric use) visible to students who live in these spaces.

Facilities helped us wire the space initially so we could collect data on electric use for each unit separately. The faculty members advise interdisciplinary teams (typically of computer science, economics, and psychology majors) in designing and running behavioral science studies assessing how different types of visual feedback (alone or in combination with other interventions) may shift residents’ electric use. Professor Vaccari also works with the CS team members in creating/maintaining the hardware and helping them with the programming while Jonathan Kemp assists with long term data storage.  We hope to expand this initiative over the next few years to include other residential spaces as well as additional technology that would enable us to measure (and provide feedback on) water use.

The best answer for energy conscious building managers and occupants is both do-it-yourself and do-it-for-you. We get the best results by educating people about how their actions impact climate so they can do it themselves. However, sometimes the most effective, and easiest path, is to do it for people by building smart systems that minimize the impacts of building energy without anyone having to “do” anything!

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