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Minding their ps and qs about kwhs

MIT dorms vie for greatest energy reductions

GreeningMIT is an occasional series focusing on the broad efforts to improve energy efficiency on campus.

If you're living in a dormitory and not paying a separate bill for electricity, there's little incentive to be frugal about your power usage -- other than, you know, helping to prevent global climate change. But students here do thrive on competition, so for the third year they are now pitting dorm against dorm to see which can achieve the greatest savings.

This year, for the first time, in addition to the 11 undergraduate dorms, all seven graduate dorms are also competing. Prize money of $10,000 will be split among the winning dorms, to be used for improvements of their choosing including energy-efficiency retrofits.

For MIT, it's definitely a win-win proposition: The Housing Office of the Division of Student Life, which put up the prize money, actually saved 261,414 kwh of electricity -- or about $34,000 in energy costs -- during the eight weeks of last spring's competition. Retrofits paid for with the winnings will save money year after year.

For the students, the contest comes down to finding ways to encourage each other to change behavior. This includes simple actions such as remembering to switch off lights in empty rooms, choosing to study in groups in a common area with a couple of overhead lights rather than each having individual lights burning as they study in their own rooms, or taking shorter, cooler showers, for example.

"It takes a lot of persuasion to get people to change their behavior," says organizer Timothy Grejtak, a junior in energy conversion engineering. To help keep students motivated, each dorm has at least one student, a dorm coordinator, in charge of motivating his or her fellow residents.

Other measures can have a more lasting impact, such as moving power strips to a more visible position. This can help serve as a reminder to switch the strips off, thereby preventing the phantom power usage that occurs even when computers and other devices are individually turned off.

To allow for the fact that the dorms have very different patterns of energy usage, each dorm's performance is calculated relative to a baseline period for that dorm -- which is measured during an unannounced period to prevent anyone from trying to "game" the system. This year, the contest's organizers are using three different systems for comparing energy use during the contest's eight weeks with that of the baseline period.

First, as in past years, for the initial three weeks they will do a straight percentage comparison of the electricity used. Then, for the next three weeks, they will do a comparison of the actual kilowatts used per capita, to take into account the different sizes of dorms. And in the final two weeks, they will use an algorithm that combines these two and other measurement systems.

Grejtak dreams of expanding the contest in future years. "It would be wonderful to have the entire campus involved -- classrooms, labs, offices," he says. In addition, since other universities around the country have had similar competitions, next year it's possible there will be a head-to-head contest with another campus such as Harvard, he says.

And for the students who take part, there is one solid lesson to be learned from the experience, Grejtak says: "You have the power to make a difference, at no cost."

The MIT Energy Initiative's Campus Energy Task Force is again supporting this year's competition, with additional prize money for the newly added graduate dorms. "This competition is a terrific example of what the Task Force is looking to encourage all across campus," says Steven Lanou, deputy director for environmental sustainability. For more information on the Task Force's campus greening activities, see

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 8, 2009 (download PDF).

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