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Wednesday, 22 February 2012 21:34

Battle of the Plug: WCU raises the stakes on a national energy conservation competition

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Things have gotten slightly darker at Western Carolina University.

The Cullowhee-based college is battling Boone’s Appalachian State University in the “Battle of the Plug.” A play on their football competition, Battle of the Old Mountain Jug, this battle pits the two rivals against each other for the benefit of the environment.

University sustainability officials are encouraging students living in the dorms to unplug and turn-off whatever and whenever possible. Professors are also being asked to teach their classes in the dark. But it is also the little things — like unplugging cell phone chargers when not in use to avoid a so-called “vampire load” — that can add up on a collective scale.

“The ability to beat App is up to everybody,” said Lauren Bishop, energy manager at WCU. “Students seem really excited about it this year, which makes me excited.”

Officials are measuring which campus residence hall saves the greatest percentage of energy, as well as how the overall reduction in energy use compares with participating institutions, including App State. WCU kicked off the three-week long event on Feb. 13.

Although Bishop is an App State grad herself, there’s no love lost when it comes to this energy competition. Despite her App State ties, Bishop assures that she bleeds purple.

“I have more of my energy invested in this school,” she said.

Bishop contacted App State with the idea of holding an energy competition a few years ago, but at the time, they had no way to track their energy savings. That is until the Center for Green Schools, an environmentally conscience nonprofit, created Campus Conservation Nationals, a countrywide electricity and water use reduction competition among colleges and universities. The nonprofit provided an online platform for schools to catalog their conservation efforts.

As of Monday, with 22 days left in the competition, App State was narrowly beating WCU.

If WCU hopes to pull off a win, it will need to work to shift the way students act and show them how much energy is indeed saved when they take a five- instead of 10-minute shower or turn the lights off when they leave a room.

“It is behavior change,” said Caden Painter, an energy management specialist at WCU. “We will continue to host activities that will promote this behavior change.”

Signs are posted around WCU reminding students about the competition, and Bishop has reached out to student groups to help spread the word.

“Peer-to-peer communication is still the most effective way,” she said.

Bishop has been receiving steady requests from resident assistants and student groups to lead sustainability-related events, such as a green energy trivia night. Participation is reaching “critical mass,” she said.

Bishop hopes that they will be able to keep the momentum going even after the competition ends.

 

Sustaining its energy focus

All state colleges and universities must lessen their energy consumption 30 percent by 2015 — a feat that WCU has already attained. WCU was the first, and in fact only, university in the state to meet the mandatory energy reduction goal.

“We are the only ones maintaining it,” Bishop said.

But the university isn’t resting on those laurels.

With the installation of a new chancellor, the university has begun work on its new vision — which includes more energy savings.

“Sustainability is a big piece of that,” Bishop said.

The best and easiest way to be sustainable, according to Bishop, is simply monitoring usage levels.

The university spends nearly $1 million on utility bills each year, Bishop said.

WCU has started “aggressively” scheduling classes and events so that buildings not in use can be essentially shut down, she said.

WCU also plans to debut its own program for keeping track of its energy usage at some point in the future. Harrill Hall, which is currently under renovation and will reopen with a gold LEED certification, will feature a screen displaying that residence hall’s usage data, Bishop said.

The school has one other LEED-certified building; its’ Health and Human Sciences building is certified at the silver level. However, sustainability has been a part of WCU’s construction planning for several years.

“We have started to make that more of a priority in the building,” Painter said.

Although they are not certified, the Fine and Performing Arts Center and the Center for Applied Technology building are “pretty energy efficient,” Bishop said.

It is considerably easier to construct more sustainable buildings that use various forms of energy more effective than to condition humans to change their behavior.

“I think it’s more taking the control out of the end user,” Bishop said. “Building better buildings.”

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