Campus portal opens doors for eco-oriented students, staff
Most people wouldn’t want to make their utility bill available to the public. But that’s essentially what Chico State is doing with a new portal that aims to help cut energy consumption while making the process transparent.
“For the first time, we’re making building data easily publicly available,” said Fletcher Alexander, sustainability coordinator at Chico State.
Alexander and his colleagues are on the cusp of rolling out the new portal, which will make energy consumption on campus readily available not just for students but also the public to review.
The portal—in the form of a website, created using a third-party proprietary software called buildingOS—shows electricity use in almost every building on campus, along with resources on sustainability and recycling.
“It’s making available all kind of data that wasn’t once available,” Alexander said.
The data is broken down by time of day, cost per kilowatt hour, consumption trends per square foot and number of occupants, and can be compared building by building. At midnight, every day, information from the meters is sent from campus servers to the portal and organized into graphs.
“It’s about making it engaging for people,” Alexander said.
The portal may be a new tool for the university to help achieve sustainability initiatives; however, campus officials already have been measuring energy consumption at the building level and creating the infrastructure to study the data. It’s just recently that the university’s Institute for Sustainable Development decided to take this process a step further and make the information public.
Alexander said the idea stemmed from participation in a nationwide competition to lower the university’s carbon footprint. As part of the competition, which was called the Campus Conservation Nationals, campuses got the software as a tool to measure how each reduced its carbon footprint. Chico State participated in the competition in 2013-15 and fared well—finishing first in the nation in 2014—by reducing its electricity and water usage. Organizers since have stopped holding the competition.
“The students really bought into it,” Alexander said.
It just made sense to continue to utilize the data from the software and eventually make the information available, Alexander said. He hopes the data stream can help identify opportunities for conservation and engage building occupants, such as faculty and staff as well as students living in residence halls.
The project did come at a cost, though Chico State won a grant through the California State University system under the Campus as a Living Lab program—part of the CSU’s 2014 sustainability policy tasking the 23 campuses with integrating sustainability into academics
Alexander estimated the overall cost of implementation, software licences and hardware purchases to be about $100,000, all of which has been paid for with the grant money.
Some of the cost stems from incorporating the data and portal into curricula, as the portal not only acts as a tool for university officials, but also serves as a teaching tool.
“Ultimately my idea was to take the data from all the buildings and use that in the classroom,” said Kristen Kaczynski, assistant professor of geological and environmental sciences. Kaczynski also helped write the grant proposal to create the portal.
Kaczynski has included data in her Intro to Environmental Science course, consisting of mostly freshman non-science majors, for three semesters now, she said.
“They live in the dorms. They are able to actually see the type of energy use that the different buildings [register] and compare it,” Kaczynski said.
Students enrolled in classes using the portal receive a login and entry to a back door of additional information not provided to the public. The portal also is used in an environmental literacy course, and there are plans to incorporate it into other classes as well.
The data contributes to the university’s broader mission of getting students to be conscious of their carbon footprint, said Kaczynski.
“They think about their energy consumption or their food consumption,” she said. “It helps put their lives in perspective with how they’re living their life and how that might affect the planet.”
Students have been receptive to using the data in projects, saying it creates a level of engagement when the numbers are made personal.
“I tend to see students who are super passionate. They really want to know about environmental science and how their lives are affecting the earth,” Kaczynski said.
The software used to create the portal, along with the entire measurement system, was designed by software start-up Lucid out of Oakland and is used by several universities and colleges, along with municipalities and corporations across the country.
Alexander said there have been hiccups implementing the entire system, stemming from various issues such as dated buildings with only one meter to working across dozens of departments campuswide.
He said the portal is live but he is still working through some minor technical glitches and updates before opening it to the public.
“We are really hoping this becomes a destination for folks,” he said.