Do energy visualization dashboards really save energy?
If you have visited a college or university lately, it is probable that you have noticed monitors showing facts about on-campus sustainability and current energy use. These systems, which are also known as energy visualization dashboards, are the latest trend in an ongoing effort to drive awareness around energy use in an attempt to get more involvement from the campus population. Some systems are very flashy with animated graphics, or are interactive with educational elements, while others are simple and only display data. Several colleges and universities are also using these dashboards to generate competition between their students to promote engagement in energy-savings programs, showing who is using the least amount of energy in various ongoing competitions on campus.
Companies in the energy visualization market have historically promoted dashboards as playing a role in saving operational costs, educational curriculums for students, and even in recruiting by appealing to environmentally conscious students. However, with so many variations on the same theme, it got me to wondering whether these dashboards are actually living up to all the hype. Are visualization dashboards successfully driving improved public image, increased energy savings or contributing to recruiting? Do they really save energy?
The short answer is no. Here’s why.
Universities strive to be on the cutting edge of technology, innovation and research, and must convey an image to the public that they are early adopters to boost recruiting and overall reputation. In our current political and social state of affairs, this means an image of sustainable development and operation is growing in importance. This is evident in the past several years as "green" ranking systems have popped up. Campus visitors and prospective students may determine or develop a perception about how sustainable a campus is by how many recycling bins are visible, the presence of green student organizations, and yes, an energy dashboard. At first glance, the dashboards can provide the desired “green” public relations image to visitors such as parents, potential students and visiting faculty and can therefore help in recruiting.
It’s possible that setting forth a positive image may be the only inherent benefit of dashboards. As those prospective students enroll, unless there is substance behind those dashboards, I have seen that the illusion will soon vanish. Just like the handmade paper student organization banners of the past, dashboards can quickly become stale unless there are ongoing programs to make them meaningful.
After visits to several campuses recently, I've noticed a significant difference between the schools where the dashboard was put up but never integrated into the curriculum, college/university culture or processes versus the campuses that did incorporate it. The campus tours will always include a stop by the kiosk, but if you grab a random student passing by and ask them what it means to them, do they have an answer? There were a few who did, and I found out that incorporating the data from the dashboard into everyday behaviors on campus made the difference.
The Real Benefits
Many universities are leading the way in research and implementing new technologies, while others focus on cultural topics and social science. It can be argued that in either typical environment, technological or cultural, universities have a desire to save energy and reduce their costs. It can also be argued that either environment could achieve similar goals though in vastly different ways. While a technology-driven campus could implement new systems to reduce or recover waste energy, a culturally driven campus could encourage behaviors to do the same. It’s important to note that these behaviors don’t have to be initiated in a “bubble.” If desired, schools can implement new technology while encouraging behaviors to get the best of both worlds.
But back to the question at hand: Do dashboards save energy? No – not when they’re operating alone. They are not an effective way to save energy without an accompanying initiative that fosters the use of information from the dashboard to change behavior or implement new technology. This is why so many colleges and universities that have invested in this type of visualization technology have not seen any tangible energy savings or results. From my experience, it’s clear that the campuses that have witnessed an impact are incorporating dashboards to inform change.
The most common method to incorporate the dashboards into everyday campus life is to initiate dorm-wide and departmental competitions. Participants can compete on anything from how many pounds of recycling they can generate to the amount of energy saved in a given month. Many successful programs that I’ve witnessed run a series of short competitions with a theme or goal, and a few suggestions to get them started – the students and faculty take care of the rest! This sort of competitive framework encourages innovation and leadership while limiting the university's investment and infrastructure. Surprisingly, the prizes are often no more than just bragging rights, but in most cases, seem to motivate behaviors conducive to the end goals that lead to the installation a dashboard in the first place. Just make sure to keep the results updated.
Another area that seems to be gaining in popularity is opening the dashboard technologies up to graduate and upper level students to track experimental results or perform behavioral experiments with the general public. I recently observed one student using a kiosk to understand how subjects interacted with different user interface designs and color selections.
Today’s Visualization Tools
If you’re considering incorporating an energy dashboard into your college or university, the best systems that I’ve seen provide screens for operators, university administration, students, and faculty. These systems take more effort to put together, but they are vastly superior to the campuses where multiple systems are fulfilling the needs of the different audiences. Though I haven’t run across one yet, a single system can potentially increase the feel of community by showing results and efforts by all groups in a common language. While the day-to-day interaction of each group with the system might be completely different, all of the information would be in the same place. As we learn to further our efforts and find better ways to communicate, these holistic systems seem to provide the most promise of a brighter future.
If you have already invested in a dashboard of any type, I invite you to revisit how you have chosen to incorporate that into your campus. Have you had the impact you expected? Could the impact be more significant? Challenge your students and staff to find new ways of leveraging your investment and don't be afraid to stumble. You might just discover the next big thing.
Brandy Moore is offer development manager at Schneider Electric.
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