• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.


Follow the kilowatts

A couple of posts ago, I threatened to explain more about some of the reasons it’s hard to get people to save energy on campuses. Let’s use Greenback U as an example.

February 20, 2008

A couple of posts ago, I threatened to explain more about some of the reasons it’s hard to get people to save energy on campuses. Let’s use Greenback U as an example.

Now, we all know that Philosophy departments are chock full of faculty who teach things like ethics, and truth, and stuff. (I was a social sciences major. Can you tell?) In any event, people who value ethics are definitely people who want to save energy and prevent global warming. (For some good insights into the ethical dimensions of climate change, check out Penn State’s Rock Ethics Institute.)

Anyways, let’s say the philosophers decide they want to save energy, as an ethical decision. But, since Philosophy departments are rarely over-funded in today’s market, they want to take some of the savings and spend it on departmental supplies. Seems only reasonable that they should be able to do that, right?

Well, life isn’t always reasonable. At Greenback U, rarely so.

The first problem is that, although whatever steps are taken to save energy are taken by the philosophers, the savings they achieve don’t accrue to the Philosophy department. They accrue to the Energy department, which pays the electric bill for all the buildings on campus. The Energy department will be glad to save some money, but they’re under no obligation to share those savings with the philosophers.

The second problem is that, even if they wanted to, the Energy department really couldn’t share the savings generated by Philosophy, because they can’t identify the savings generated by Philosophy, or any other specific department. Greenback doesn’t get an electric bill broken down by academic (or administrative, or other) department. Rather, it gets an electric bill broken down by electrical meter. And meters don’t correspond to departments. In fact, they often don’t even correspond to buildings. Clusters of buildings, sometimes. Seemingly random portions of buildings (based on historic timing of construction and rehabilitation projects over the decades), other times. The metering at Greenback is adequate to verify (we think) that the gross amount of electricity we’re being billed for was, in fact, consumed on campus. Where on campus, or for what purpose, or by whom, we can’t really say.

Greenback is better off than some campuses. At least we have multiple meters. Some state schools in the area, I’m told, have one meter for the entire campus. Still, we’re nowhere near where we want to be, and it will be years (or longer) before we even get close.

Detailed billing (which means detailed metering) is a necessity if we’re going to charge departments, colleges, or other campus groups for the electricity they actually use. And if they’re not getting charged based on usage, there goes a big incentive to conserve! Worse, if someone does conserve (out of a sense of responsibility or for whatever other reason), we can’t recognize that fact, nor quantify the savings in any reasonable way. If we were to reward the savers with so much as a hearty handshake, it would have to be based on faith, rather than data.

Installing an electric meter into an existing campus building typically costs tens of thousands of dollars. On a campus with a long list of maintenance items, both current and deferred, it’s a hard sell. But without it, managed energy conservation is a pipe (or is that a conduit?) dream.


Back to Top