Higher education can play a leadership role in advancing environmental sustainability. Through its research, teaching, and operational practices, The University of Pennsylvania is dedicated to promoting a sustainable culture. This is not surprising given the current trend in higher education to adopt climate action plans and examine campus footprints. Penn’s initiatives for “greening” its campus include LEED certifications for buildings, buying Renewable Energy Credits, engaging students and incorporating sustainability into the curriculum.
As part of its efforts, the “Green Campus Partnership” (which is run out of the Facilities and Real Estate Services, or FRES) has been organizing The Power Down Challenge to raise awareness about the need for energy conservation. This program engages students and staff in reducing energy usage through friendly competition. In 2012, selected residential and campus buildings competed against each other from October 29-November 18th to see who could reduce electricity usage the most.
Because decreasing or eliminating energy consumption is the most direct method of reducing the University’s carbon footprint, this program is highly relevant to the University’s Climate Action Plan goal of achieving a 17% energy reduction by 2014. This program also helps track and communicate progress to the Penn community and external audiences. “Saving energy is an important achievement,” said FRES Executive Director of Operations and Maintenance Ken Ogawa. He added that the “greater achievement is getting more involvement and more awareness, which will result in a long-term benefit.”
The Power Down Challenge had two components. In the first, all of Penn’s College Houses (dorms) competed against each other. In the second, 11 self-selected campus office and classroom buildings squared off to see who could conserve the most energy. The competition started by establishing a baseline, which was found by taking electrical usage readings at participating buildings over a two-week period in early October. The challenge involved investing campus resources and adopting innovative marketing strategies. These efforts and the competitive spirit led to enthusiastic involvement from top to bottom, which multiplied impact. This year’s competition involved an interactive new social tool called the Building Dashboard, which allowed teams to see competitor energy usage, commit to energy-saving actions, view the Green Campus Partnership’s Twitter feed (#GreenPenn), and see what others were posting about the Power Down Challenge on Facebook. According to Dan Garofalo, Penn’s Environmental Sustainability Coordinator, “this Building Dashboard software provided a dynamic and visually engaging website designed to inspire collaboration and friendly competition. It invites interaction and really gives the competition clear graphics and educational elements.”
The result of this nearly three-week conservation challenge was a combined savings of 71,000 kWh across Penn’s campus. The college house and campus building with the biggest decrease in energy usage were even given awards.
In addition to raising awareness over a three-week period, the Power Down Challenge succeeded in getting participants to adopt energy-conserving practices, some of which will last year round. Employees in the Franklin Building, last year’s Campus Building winner, expanded their energy-savings programs from 2011 and reduced electrical usage an additional 2.8 percent this year, showing that their conservation behaviors held over from last year.
Julian Goresko, Sustainability Student Outreach Associate, said that even after the challenge ended last year, energy tracking showed a lasting 5 to 10 percent reduction in energy usage. “It is important for people to understand that individual behavior, in aggregate, has the ability to drive down usage, reduce emissions and ultimately save University money,” he said. “I hope this challenge will show people that.”
This challenge can be a model for other sustainability initiatives in higher education or in the workplace. It successfully used competition to drive sustainable behavior change, encourage participation, and develop on-campus sustainability leadership. Furthermore, incorporating a challenge such as this into a university environment was a great hands-on learning opportunity for students and staff, which reinforced the fledgling culture of sustainability at the University of Pennsylvania. By combining awards, marketing, a user-friendly online tool, and social media, this competition went beyond the usual world of pens, paper, and computer screens to teach the entire community a valuable lesson.