Taking on Campus Energy Consumption, One Thermostat at a Time

This article was created by a Technology Services student employee. Our student employees attend, engage, and report on campus events that feature technology. Students provide a unique perspective on how innovations in technology affect campus life.

By Meghan McCoy, English, '18

By the time the world turns 2050, what new technology would you like to see? Perhaps owning a self-driving car makes the top of the list, or, what would be my choice, a Star Trek-like contraption that makes food appear instantaneously.  Either  of these  would be amazing, but the University of Illinois has an even better goal: to become carbon neutral.

For anyone who is unsure about why becoming carbon neutral is so important, the increasing level of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere is widely accepted by the scientific community as the reason for growing temperatures worldwide and rising sea levels. These changes can, and already have had, devastating effects from destructive weather patterns such as hurricanes, flooding, drought and species loss from changing habitats. Recognizing the important role the University plays in reducing carbon levels, lowering energy consumption rates is one of the first tactics UIUC is taking in the fight against climate change.

It’s this fight against rising emissions where Erica Myer’s and Mateus Nogueira Meirelles de Souza’s project on Behavioral Interventions for Campus Energy Consumption comes in. Professor Myers, who works in the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Economics and Graduate Student Mateus de Souza, have spent approximately more than a year’s worth of planning, design, collaboration and implementation. Their research project aims to discover energy usage in controllable residence halls and identify behavioral interventions to help reduce energy consumption.

Sitting down one morning with Myers and de Souza, we discussed the multi-departmental cooperation required for this project, as well as the technology behind measuring energy consumption in controllable dorm rooms. Myers and de Souza explained just what they hope their study will be able to achieve, and the energy savings possibilities for future buildings on campus.

Meghan (M): Getting started, I read on the Institute for Sustainability, Energy and Environment’s website that one of your goals is to change people’s behavior through this study. One of my first questions, then, is what are the behaviors you see that are causing some of the biggest problems for environmental sustainability?

De Souza (DS): Well, for this study we’re focusing on the heating/cooling aspects of energy consumption, and basically we noticed that in the residence halls with controllable thermostats a few students were leaving the thermostat at one setting. This behavior means that they are not interacting with the thermostat as much as we would like them to, which can waste energy. One of the ideas we had, then, is that when a student is not at home they lower the thermostat or shut if off, and adjust it according to the weather and when they are sleeping.

M: How do you see behavioral interventions being more effective at helping people change their energy consumption habits, as opposed to something like a strict regulatory measure?

MT: Well in the case of students who are living in the dorms, they are not directly paying for their energy bills so it would be harder for us to make them reduce their energy usage. And because heating and cooling is included in the fees that students pay at the beginning of the year energy consumption is just not that salient for them. And even if fees or taxes could help reduce emissions there is still space to try and curb people’s behaviors towards the right direction.

M: Is there a particular source of energy consumption that uses more resources than other forms?

Professor Myers (PM): Heating and cooling is significant, typically averaging about half of a person’s energy consumption. That is why we wanted to focus on heating and cooling, because a lot of times when people say they need to save energy they think “Oh I’ll just turn off the lights,” but it turns out one of the biggest differences you can make is how well you manage your space heating and cooling. To create heat or electricity you’re directly burning natural gas, which is one of the biggest CO2 emitters. And since CO2 is not regulated at the government level we wanted to see if we could reduce emissions another way.

M: Coming back to the technical aspects of the project, I know you are currently partnering with Facilities and Services on campus to collect the data on student energy usage in their dorm. Could you further explain this process and the role Facilities and Services plays?

DS: Absolutely. What happens is that the University's Facilities and Services collects data from these rooms about how students are setting their thermostats. We had a lot of back and forth between Facilities and Services over the last few years, but now we are at a point in the project where Facilities and Services sends us the data from the individual thermostats. The thermostats have a very high frequency, which means that every 15 minutes we receive information on what the settings are. Based on that and the outdoor temperature we can estimate how much energy a student is using. Once we have the information collected we generate graphs to make the data more understandable and then send our findings out to the students. The emails they receive let them know how much energy they’ve consumed and ways they could help reduce it in the future.

M: I know that within this project you are also using Amazon Web Services (AWS), which is a cloud computing service. How are you specifically using AWS in your research in addition to partnering with Facilities and Services?

DS: So how it works is Facilities and Services sends us the data inside University of Illinois Box, and then we move that data into AWS which we have our own accounts for. Inside it’s basically like a virtual machine, and we run these scripts that are inside AWS to produce the graphs and write the scripts in a statistical language. After that, we run Python script which sends out a weekly email to the students.

PM: Exactly, and what’s nice about AWS is we only need the server for a few hours once a week, which means we can say that we are only going to use a certain amount of Ram or CPU. And that’s useful because it’s very affordable, and since we need a lot of space, but only for about an hour a week, it means we are only paying for the amount of time that we are using AWS for.

M: Have you experienced any setbacks so far or has your research been a relatively smooth process?

DS: I would say that there were several hurdles we had to go through. This research is all new and not a lot of people are doing it, and for us it’s our first time doing this research as well. A big hurdle was just making sure we were getting the right type of data from Facilities and Services.

PM: Yeah the first step was just trying to figure out which building even had the information we wanted, and then it turned out that even though Facilities and Services collects this information it goes into different systems depending on who set the building up.

I think there was also a little bit of hesitancy on the part of housing to give us individual emails of who is in what room, and they wanted to be absolutely sure that all of the data was secure. I think the one major obstacle though was figuring out how to get the data from Facilities and Services. That difficulty made sense because these are huge, multi-level dorms and it’s not common for them be individually metered, so the fact that Illinois even has that capacity was very exciting for us.

M: One of my final questions is once your research is completed, do you think you’ll experience any pushback about your findings? Because of various political and social climates it doesn’t seem like these findings are always very welcome, so do you think you might experience any backlash from energy companies?

PM: I think energy efficiency on a political level is something everyone can get excited about. If someone is concerned about greenhouse gas emissions they can see this study as a cost effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions but also as a way to save resources and money. If the University of Illinois is not spending money on energy then they can spend it on curriculum or other areas, so I think you can get behind the results on any part of the political spectrum. And if this goes well and the campus gets excited about it new buildings could easily be set up with this technology. The idea is that the benefits will outweigh the costs of setting up the technology and I think that’s what we can show for campus.  

For more information about partnering with Technology Services to utilize AWS, please visit https://techservices.illinois.edu/services/amazon-web-services/details