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A candlelit dinner in the cafeteria ended the competition the way it began.

UBC students go green for energy-saving contest

Lucy Gregory discovered she doesn’t mind spending time in the dark. Gregory, a first-year student at the University of British…

By Claudia Goodine , in Environment , on November 25, 2010 Tags: , , ,

Over the competition, students made pledges on how they would reduce their electricity consumption

Lucy Gregory discovered she doesn’t mind spending time in the dark.

Gregory, a first-year student at the University of British Columbia, was part of a UBC team that placed second in a new North America energy-saving competition that ended Nov. 20. UBC was the only Canadian university to participate in the three-week competition between 39 campuses.

“I don’t think I’ve ever showered in the dark before,” said Gregory. “I try not to take the elevator, but sometimes I get lazy.”

UBC’s Totem Park Residence, home to first and second year students, reduced its energy consumption by 16.3 per cent.

The 1,163 students at Totem ate and showered with the lights off as the competition pitted student residences against each other in an attempt to reduce electricity usage with a real-time online monitoring system.

Engaging students in environmental stewardship through initiatives such as energy-saving competitions is a key part of UBC’s Climate Action Plan, which developed out of government targets to reduce greenhouse gases.

Dorms emit the majority of universities’ CO2. Totem was targeted to reach students in their first year with the hope that they will develop energy-saving habits early.

“I think it made us feel more responsible for our space,” said first-year student Dallas Bennett.

Real-time feedback

The energy-saving competition was the first of its kind that allowed participants to track their energy usage online in real-time from a building dashbaord – a website with software showing graphs that compared energy reductions between the different buildings and schools.

Studies show that real-time feed-back on energy usage promotes motivation to reduce energy consumption.

A candlelit dinner in the cafeteria ended the competition the way it began

“Research shows that data tools are important for engagement. The real-time feedback gives a great visual reminder,” said Liz Ferris, the competition representative from the UBC Campus Sustainability Office.

Totem Park saved 9,111 kilowatt-hours and $546 and averted 519 tonnes of CO2 over the three weeks.

Students created a Facebook page that provided energy-saving tips and connected students to the website, which got its data from energy measuring systems installed in each of Totem’s six buildings. The systems will continue to measure electricity usage at Totem after the competition.

Quinn Runkle, from Common Energy UBC, said the amount of energy saved is exciting but not the main point of the competition.

“It’s more important how many students we engaged who otherwise may not have thought about sustainability,” Runkle said. “Studies show that energy-use increases after these kinds of competitions, but it rarely increases to what it was before the competition.”

Student-led environmental groups Common Energy and goBEYOND organized events like a camp-out and candlelit dinners to raise awareness about the competition they named “Do It in the Dark.” They encouraged students to use the stairs, share fridges, unplug their electronics and turn off the lights.

Black and white posters throughout the dorms tried to grab students’ attention:

“Hanging your friends out to dry is bad, but for your laundry it’s all good. Save money and power: wash in cold water, air dry your clothes.”

Unplugging the power

While the visuals provided tips and reminders, real action came from a sustained effort by students who took the lead in encouraging their peers. It was probably no coincidence that Haida house, the Totem building that won first place, was home to a particularly enthusiastic floor representative, Shelley Jiali.

“I’ve been going around hassling people, telling them to turn their lights off,” Jiali said. “I’m basically just being a big pest.”

Other students showed their enthusiasm, Jiali said, by unplugging the vending machine.

Dark hallways and bathrooms soon replaced the glare of fluorescent lights as students adjusted to – or at least tolerated – doing things in the dark.

“We just turn the lights back on when someone screams in the bathroom,” said Bennet, a first-year student at Totem.

Several students said they already turned off all their lights and used the stairs regularly before the competition. But one student, Spencer Murch, said the competition made a difference in how he now thinks about energy consumption.

“I started to make a more conscious decision about saving energy,” he said.

Green habits

Competition mascot, Phantom Power, reminded students that energy is wasted when appliances and electronics are left plugged in.

But some students wondered how much of a difference the competition made in changing behaviour patterns.

Jiali, for instance, said that when she brought out a drying rack it inspired the other girls on her floor to do the same, but she wasn’t sure if they would keep using it after the competition.

“Will I continue using it? I don’t know. I haven’t decided,” Jiali said.

One student, Jordan Dubchak, said that some people just don’t care, and probably won’t make an effort after the competition.

Her friend Madeleine Armour, however, disagreed and said that the habit of conserving energy has now been established over the past three weeks.

“If we keep doing it maybe others will,” Armour said, “and then it becomes a habit.”

Ferris said that the real success of the competition should be defined by the extent that students were engaged in thinking about broader sustainability initiatives. And awareness is the first step in changing behaviour.

UBC’s green initiative:

  • UBC is on a mission to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions after the B.C. government passed the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Targets Act in 2007.
  • According to this legislation, organizations in the public sector must make efforts to be carbon-neutral by 2010.
  • In 2009, UBC developed a Climate Action Plan through the collaboration of over 200 UBC students, faculty, staff and community members to outline ways to accomplish carbon neutrality and reduce greenhouse gas emission to 33 per cent below 2007 levels by 2015.
  • Engaging students in thinking about sustainability through initiatives such as the “Do It in the Dark” energy-saving competitions is a key part of this plan. Efforts are underway to expand the competition to other UBC residences next year.
  • Lucid Design Group, formed by graduates of Oberlin College, designed the Building Dashboard and are studying its effects on energy conservation in student competition. Dormitories with better energy usage feed-back are more effective at energy conservation, according to astudy by Oberlin College in Ohio, published in the International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education.
  • The North American competition, The Campus Conservation Nationals, resulted in a total of 526,749 kilowatt-hours and $51,919 saved and 848,390 tonnes of CO2 averted.


  • I find it really interesting that UBC was the only Canadian university to participate in this initiative. I wonder why other universities did not. Perhaps because it’s such a new program?

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