The heat is on to turn down that dial

Universities are offering students incentives to cut their energy consumption. Nicholas Chan reports

August 19, 2010

Competitions to turn down the thermostat in offices and rooms could become a reality in the not-too-distant future for students and academics alike.

The prospect has been raised in light of the success of an energy-saving campaign that targeted individual halls of residence.

With rising energy bills and the pressures on the sector to cut carbon emissions, tough measures are needed on campus.

Recent years have seen UK universities, often with assistance from the Carbon Trust, develop more sophisticated and detailed systems to monitor their energy consumption, moving from estimates for whole estates to automated half-hourly readings for individual buildings.

Making use of these data, one campaign group, Student Switch Off, has begun using them to offer rewards, such as ice cream and nights out, to encourage students living in halls of residence at 22 universities to cut their energy consumption.

Neil Jennings, the campaign's coordinator, said that universities would be looking hard at the possibilities for more detailed energy monitoring and incentive schemes.

"All universities are trying to get a better handle on how energy is used and consumed, and metering at a finer resolution is a key part of that," he said.

Anna Simpson, sustainability officer at Royal Holloway, University of London, said that while metering was currently restricted to blocks accommodating a few hundred people, "what would be ideal is to have it at a more specific level".

"If you were to go down to the flat level, you could pull off a report (on energy consumption) and send it to each flat," she said. That alone would not necessarily change behaviour, she cautioned, but probably would if institutions offered associated incentives to do so.

The savings made on energy bills at the University of the West of England - just under 15 per cent last year - are being translated into cash prizes for students.

The 80 students who live in the residence block that makes the greatest reduction to its consumption will each receive £50 at the end of the year. At smaller off-site residences where each unit houses only half a dozen students, the reward can be up to £250 per student.

Melissa Clarke, energy officer at the University of the West of England, said that she would "love" to be able to monitor and reward at a more detailed - perhaps individual - level, although she acknowledged that there were significant logistical and financial constraints to overcome.

So could academics join students in competing with their colleagues?

With departments often spread out across different buildings at many institutions, the administrative challenges of faculty-by-faculty, let alone don-by-don, metering present another set of obstacles. "It'd be a big job," Ms Clarke said, "but we haven't ruled it out."

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