The following is the eighth installment in a periodic Utility Dive series, "Diary of a Grid Defector." Each month, Utility Dive's Robert Walton will report on his adventures setting up an off-grid cabin and exploring developments in distributed energy in upstate New York. We hope his experiences will give our readers an insightful, first-hand look at what life is like at the edge of the electricity system—and how the revolution in distributed energy technologies is changing it. The first seven installments can be found here.
You can do a lot of things with advanced meters. Even catch a college kid trying to game the system.
In and around Ithaca, N.Y., Cornell University is king. It's the largest employer in the area, drives sustainable research and agricultural breakthroughs, and – with a $65 million annual energy bill – has a keen interest in keeping down costs.
In 2010, the university launched its “Think Big, Live Green” initiative, an umbrella branding for a series of sustainability projects, outreach campaigns and investments. And among the campus' many assets, all of its buildings have smart meters. The project has a long-term goal to reduce campus electric use by 1% each year, equivalent to 7.2 MWh and $650,000 per year.
So how do you motivate college kids to save energy? Turn it into a competition. Except, at first, the inevitable happened.
“Before we established real baselines, some of the students used to use a lot of energy before the competition and then during the competition just used their normal amount,”said Sustainability Engagement Manager Erin Moore. “Luckily, Cornell has amazing metering in all of our buildings.”
That made the solution simple. “We got wise to that and established baselines that are based on a rolling five-year average,” Moore said. “If they're using more energy before the competition, they're just hurting themselves.”
By all accounts, the energy competitions and broader sustainability efforts have been a success. The campus has grown from 13.2 million square feet in 2011 to 14 million this year – with no increase in energy expenses.
“Our energy usage really hasn't gone up, even though our square footage has,” Moore said. “We're promoting sustainable behaviors that we hope will translate off campus as well.”
Cornell has been working for about four years now with Lucid, an Oakland-based company that takes the university's meter data and feeds it into a “building dashboard,” a visual readout of how the campus is using energy at any given time. The building dashboard serves as the playing field for Cornell's energy reduction competitions, with the winners in a recent competition managing to reduce usage almost 30% below the average.
The electricity industry is still trying to harness all of the data now flowing from smart meters. One long-held idea has been that if you give customers information about their usage then they would make smarter energy choices. But Cornell's energy competitions mirror a second point quickly being recognized across the utility space: It may be more effective to give customers information about their neighbor's usage.
Behavioral demand response programs have been using this idea for years: given sufficient information, neighbors will try and match or beat each others' energy efficiency. No one wants a higher energy bill than their neighbor. It works with solar energy as well, where panels on one home incentivize others in the neighborhood. Cornell simply dropped the subtle queues the big demand response providers employ, and tapped straight into the vein.
The building dashboard allows for direct comparisons between buildings, and different residence halls can challenge one another. It may not shift peak demand, but for several weeks each year the university sees its usage dip and its bills remain stable “Students get really competitive,” said Moore, going so far as to host “dark” study hours, urging each other to conserve, and posting commitments online to reduce usage in specific ways.
“Especially the freshman residence halls, because they are unique communities, get really competitive,” said Moore.
A residence hall specifically for ecologically-minded students, Eco House, won in 2013 but was dethroned the following year. “They got really competitive,” Moore said, obsessively turning off lights and reducing their hot water usage. “They won again last year, obviously. They wanted some payback.”
Overall, the residences saved more than 90,000 Kwh, and Eco House saw a 28% decrease — tops among the 16 residential buildings competing, and more than half were able to save at least 10%.
More than just building management
The building dashboard is just one project among many sustainability measures at Cornell, which has pledged a goal of carbon neutrality. The university has a "Green Office" certification program, is working on a smart microgrid concept, and produces its own energy through a mix of CHP, hydro, gas and solar.
But how the university organizes its energy conservation efforts, alongside its production, plays a real role, Moore said. Because the Energy Management and Utilities office and the Campus Sustainability office are in the same department, "we're able to work together more, and more efficiently and effectively."
Conservation efforts are generally designed not to interfere with the university's academic mission: laboratories might have higher, and less flexible energy demands, for instance. But since putting a climate action plan in place seven years ago, Cornell has cut greenhouse gas emissions by 30% — and almost 50% since 1990.
"There's a lot of communication that happens before we execute a project," Moore said.
Visitors come calling and other unrelated EE news
I had a visitor the other day, which is unusual out here in farmland. Working outside, setting posts for a woodshed, I turned around to find a cow standing in my driveway. Watching me. Judging me. Like it knew I had no idea how to work with concrete.
Since I don't own a cow, I ushered it back down the drive and towards my neighbor's pasture, across the street. That's about the extent of my herding skills.
With winter finally over, I've been working on projects for the season ahead. A garden, of course. The woodshed. Experimenting with shallow irrigation wells. It's hard to believe, but almost a year has passed since I moved here and began all this.
Most of the time, the progress is invisible. It all happens too slowly. But as I was urging the cow down the hill, a truck stopped. It wasn't the beast's owner, but the real estate agent who helped me buy the land last April, and I invited him up to look around.
"Completely changed," he said, surveying the place. That's not accurate, but it was nice to hear. The general goal of off-grid sustainability may be hazy at times, but it's nice to know that some kind of visible progress has been made, in some direction.
And then he launched into a series of suggestions that reminded me just how far there is to go. It turns out, he knows a bit about homesteading. He pointed out how I should grade the land to drain, where to take my soil to have it tested, fertilizers to use, some well-digging basics and a few suggestions on home heating. Making it through winter, it seems, just means more work ahead. But if all else fails, perhaps I have a future rustling cattle.