Making sustainability a habit

Oct 23, 2013

Solar panels near WMU's Miller Auditorium
Credit WMUK

A Western Michigan University graduate student is working on a project she hopes will dramatize the costs of not saving energy. The project was one focus of National Campus Sustainability Day events at Western on Wednesday (Oct. 23).

Western Michigan University officials say it has been working on ways to cut energy use for nearly two decades even has the number of buildings on campus grew. And Western President John Dunn says those efforts have paid off:

“We’ve reduced our carbon dioxide emissions by 281-million pounds, which is the equivalent of adding 3.2 million trees to the planet or removing 26,000 vehicles from the road. And we’re not done.”

A joint project with Honeywell to upgrade 50 of the university’s buildings has also had an effect. The university says that has reduced carbon emissions by nearly 4.5 million pounds, a move that saved Western about $250,000 and won it a utility bill rebate of almost $118,000 from Consumers Energy. But Western still has some way to go to meet its commitment to cut energy use by 25 percent by 2020.

WMU grad student Kate Binder demonstrates her "lucid dashboard"
Credit WMUK

Kate Binder, who’s working on her doctorate in psychology at WMU, hopes the project at the heart of her dissertation will help achieve that goal. With financial support by Honeywell, Binder hopes to change the behavior of students, faculty, and staff in ways to reduce energy consumption. To do that, she’s created a “lucid dashboard” system:

“Most people who use electricity in a building on a college campus are not aware of the magnitude of their impact. They don’t have to pay the bills. This is where the lucid dashboard comes in. The dashboard displays a building’s real-time energy use on a touch screen or on a website. The building’s occupants can interact with this touch screen to see the data and learn about their consumption. The dashboard makes electricity consumption conspicuous.”

Binder says touch screens will be installed in nine buildings around Western’s campus by early next year. Thirteen others will be covered by the Web page. However, seeing how much energy you use and acting to use less are not necessarily the same thing. Binder says she hopes her project will shift attitudes about energy over-consumption:

“How to we shift from a culture that accepts unchecked consumption to one that fully accepts that our personal choices have very real and long term impacts? This is the second part of the research project. How can we leverage dashboard feedback into information that’s meaningful enough to change behavior? What types of programs, technology designs, and social influences can we use to reach a tipping point on our campus where energy conservation is the norm; where energy conservation behaviors are expected and become second nature?”

Former EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman at WMU
Credit WMUK

Former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Christine Todd Whitman says the nation needs answers to those questions:

“Getting individuals to understand the cumulative impact of individual behavior is an enormous challenge but something that is truly, truly important if we are going to continue to have the kind of society and way of life we want. And you heard some incredible statistics about the reduction of power usage at the same time of increasing the footprint here at WMU, but what that means is more than just the cars that are off the road and the carbon. It means clean air to breathe.”

Whitman is now the co-chair of the CASEnergy Coalition, a group that supports the use of nuclear power. The cost of failing to rein in energy consumption is also large for Harold Glasser. The head of Western’s Office for Sustainability says it is part of ensuring that human beings have a future:

“It’s about learning how to live on this very special planet in a manner that meets everyone’s diverse physical and spiritual needs but not all of our desires and wants. We need to live on this planet in a manner that’s consistent with what Nature and the sun can provide, now and into the future.”

The newest building on Western’s main campus – Sangren Hall – sports a large solar power array on its roof. Glasser says he’d like to see solar panels sprout on top of all of the university’s buildings. He says that would go a long way to making the university “climate neutral” by greatly reducing the need for energy created using coal, oil, and natural gas.