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Gustavus’ Campus Energy Challenge a high-wattage effort to raise awareness

Gustavus Adophus College in St. Peter has a plan to steamroll all opponents in this year’s National Campus Energy Challenge, where schools across the country compete to see who can reduce energy consumption the most.

OK, so it’s not really a competition. The energy challenge is an informal, student-created event, meaning winners won’t get much prestige or heaps of glorious prizes. And most Gustavus students aren’t exactly at war over who can charge their cell phone the fewest number of times in February, when the month-long competition runs.

The college does, however, have a new website that has spurred new awareness of energy use by automatically tracking each kilowatt of electricity. The site allows anyone to track the college’s electricity use, broken down by building and reported hourly. While a few other colleges nationwide have similar sites (including Oberlin College in Ohio, with a beautifully designed, interactive site that’s worth a look, Gustavus’ is the first of its kind in the state.

Surprise! All those wired students aren’t energy hogs
When the site went live, the college discovered a funny thing: All of those wired Gustavus students — predicted to be practically inhaling electricity for laptops and iPods and cell phones and televisions and video games — weren’t actually using much more energy, per capita, than anyone else on campus.

“Almost everyone assumed that the residence halls were going to be using more electricity than the rest of campus, because (students) didn’t have any motivation to keep their power down,” said Ethan Sommer, who works in Gustavus’ IT department and helped spearhead the website development.

It turned out, though, that electricity usage boiled down to a simple formula: The bigger the building, the higher the usage. And that discovery gave Jim Dontje, director of Gustavus’ new Johnson Center for Environmental Innovation, a new charge: Educating the campus — faculty and administrators, too — about ways to reduce electricity costs.

The website hasn’t translated into cheaper monthly energy bills, Dontje said, but it’s certainly changed some attitudes on campus.

Website energy tracker raises conservation discussions
“It’s what I call a cool tool,” said Jim Dontje, who directs Gustavus’ Johnson Center for Environmental Innovation. “It’s not going to solve the problems, but it sure makes energy conservation discussions easier.”

Then he added some seemingly unintentional but apt wordplay: “When I show this to people, I see the light bulbs go off.”

The electricity usage website is just the first step toward a more comprehensive approach to gauging the college’s energy use, Sommer said. The college is now looking at several more comprehensive ways of collecting and analyzing energy data, including heating.

After all, when your average annual energy bill comes in at about $1 million, even turning off a single light bulb can make a difference.

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