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Energy Dashboard Offers Real-time Look at Usage

January 30, 2013

As UC Merced’s new energy manager, it’s Varick Erickson’s job to watch every kilowatt hour used on campus and identify ways to save them.

“It’s a lot like rummaging around in the couch and looking for change,” Erickson said.

Except the spare kilowatt hours he finds could save the campus hundreds of thousands of dollars.

That’s why he’s launched a new website – an energy dashboard to show the campus community where energy is being used and where it could be saved. The dashboard gives people a real-time look at UC Merced’s energy consumption.

Some of the information might surprise people.

Science labs, he said, use a lot of energy because of the necessary high-powered equipment. Fume hoods that keep researchers from breathing toxins, for example, use two to three times more energy than the average household. The Science and Engineering Building, he said, can account for up to 30 percent of the campus’s electric demand, while the Social Science and Management building uses between 2 percent and 5 percent of the total.

However, if everyone on campus took small steps, like turning off computer monitors, unplugging cell-phone chargers when they are not in use and turning off the heating or cooling systems in rooms that are not in use, the campus’s energy bills could begin to drop.

Though it’s a work in progress, Erickson’s site will evolve to show people room-by-room breakdowns of usage and costs.

“I don’t think people really understand the cost,” he said.

For example, replacing just 35 halogen light bulbs in the Social Sciences and Management Building with new LED units will save the campus about $5,000 a year. Erickson hopes to replace all the campus’s lighting with LED at some point.

When your electric bill averages $180,000 a month, every $5,000 counts, especially with budgets getting tighter every year.

Last year, the campus spent about $2.2 million just on electricity.

Erickson, who is also a graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science, has already put some measures in place to help.

A series of wireless cameras on the second floor of the Science and Engineering Building count room occupancy. Rooms and wings that are not occupied don’t need to be heated or cooled.

The system is also being designed to learn to predict occupancy schedules to engage the heating or air conditioning so the temperature is comfortable when people arrive. The system is still being tested, but Erickson hopes to put it to use across campus.

Another of his wireless designs is called Thermovote. It’s active in some areas of the Science and Engineering and Social Sciences and Management buildings, in places where several or lots of people spend time. Instead of having to call Facilities to have a room’s temperature changed, people can go to a website, register whether they are too warm, too cold or just right, and Thermovote will choose the average temperature that will keep the largest number of the voters comfortable.

“It’s totally democratic,” Erickson said. So far, 80 percent of the nearly 70 voter-users are happy with Thermovote.

He’s also using the campus’s online room-scheduler to adjust the classroom thermostats in the Classroom and Office Building.

“I’m confident we will be able to save a lot of money doing that,” he said. So far, consumption has decreased 15 percent.

Though most of the UC campuses have energy dashboards, UC Merced is one of the few campuses developing its own software to run the site – another of Erickson’s jobs.

“There are lots of software packages out there, but none of them give you everything you want,” Erickson said. By designing his own, Erickson can give UC Merced everything it needs to help people be more aware of energy use and more active in its conservation.

The campus, like all UCs, has a commitment to zero net energy use by 2020, and the new energy dashboard could prove to be one more big step in reaching that goal.

“Even though we are a very green, sustainable campus and our buildings are very energy efficient,” Erickson said, “there is always room for improvement.”