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Watching the Dials

Energy dashboards promote responsible usage
University Business, June 2012
touchscreen energy dashboard at Middlebury College

Although taking steps to protect the environment is “the right thing to do,” it doesn’t stop people from wanting to know their efforts are making a difference. An energy dashboard can be the answer to communicating the results of campus initiatives.

“Real-time, web-based dashboards really take what’s happening in the boiler room to the dorm room,” says Mike Kempa,
senior marketing manager for the Energy and Environmental Solutions Group at Honeywell.

Energy dashboards can pull information from electric, gas, and water meters, then present data related to consumption, cost savings, and carbon emissions. The data can then be served up either on screens in public spaces or accessed from computers and mobile devices.

Colleges and universities that have made a commitment to sustainability will have public kiosks to make a statement to their community, while facilities personnel can use the web-based version as a management tool to monitor system performance, explains Neil Maldeis, energy solutions engineering leader at Trane.

“The dashboards help you promote all the great things you’re doing on campus,” says Kempa. “In the ’80s and ’90s, we just saved energy and didn’t broadcast it.” Now students and parents seek out information about sustainability efforts during the college search. Kempa has worked with a college that “was doing green before it was popular” but was losing students to schools that were doing a better job of promoting their programs.

“The Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability dashboard is intended to work as a communications tool for the building,” says Alberto Cayuela, associate director of the University of British Columbia (Canada) Sustainability Initiative, of their Honeywell system. Displayed on a video wall in the lobby, it illustrates the buildings’ performance by displaying real-time energy and water usage.

Recent trends are toward interactive programs that are easy to understand. Kempa says a flat screen displaying the building’s usage might raise awareness, “but you’ll see the change in behavior is very limited compared to people being able to interact with it.”

At Milwaukee Area Technical College (Wisc.), the interactive display from Johnson Controls in the main lobby is part of the curriculum for the energy management program. It also provides life lessons. “We can monitor it in real time and when we make a change in our behavior we can see the difference,” says Joseph Jacobsen, associate dean of environmental studies and director of energy conservation and management. “That makes people think twice about taking the quick, least-cost solution today. They know it will be monitored for years.”

He has seen people make the connection from the data on the display to larger issues of energy independence and climate change. “This gives them something in their hands that they can do something about. They understand they can make a difference. That might sound overdramatic, but it’s not. When someone can see it on the screen, they realize they have control over it.”

Encouraging students to interact with their campus dashboards and use the information in meaningful ways is one of the goals of the Campus Conservation Nationals hosted by the U.S. Green Building Council and Lucid. From February 6 through April 23, over 200,000 students at 97 campuses competed against residence halls on their own campus and peer institutions to reduce water and energy consumption. “The competition was extremely successful, with students saving 1,739,046 kilowatt-hours of energy, equivalent to 2.6 million pounds of carbon dioxide and $157,925 in savings—effectively removing 151 U.S. homes off the grid for a year,” explains Andrew deCoriolis, director of engagement at Lucid. “Students also saved 1,554,814 gallons of water, equivalent to 10,300 shower hours or 9 million 20-ounce water bottles.”

Web-based dashboards, especially ones tied into social media, provide a level of transparency that wasn’t previously available, deCoriolis points out. He encourages the use of dashboards in conjunction with other sustainability efforts to track their effectiveness.

Real-time data is also useful for facilities staff for monitoring system performance. “If you get a bill 30 days after the fact, you can’t diagnose the problem very well,” says Sonya Ulen, director of load response at Constellation Energy.

Facilities staff are “left holding the bag” when their president signs the Presidents’ Climate Commitment or students start an initiative, but dashboards can put them back in control.

And the more aware people are of conservation efforts, the more likely they are to participate.