Student wins grant to help MU cut energy use

Thursday, August 14, 2008 | 8:40 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA - Ben Datema loves green. And he isn't afraid to tell people about it.

Formerly the president of the environmentally friendly MU student group Sustain Mizzou, Datema has encouraged MU administrators to make campus more sustainable. He's happy with the progress MU has made so far but is constantly on the lookout for new ways to get officials and students thinking about the environment.

In May, when he heard about a request for student grant proposals for innovative ways to improve campus, he jumped on it right away.

"The environment is my thing, so I immediately started trying to look for ways to approach it from a sustainability standpoint," he said.

Datema found an energy-monitoring program called Building Dashboard that piqued his interest. He wrote up a proposal and pitched it to the MU Information Technology Committee, the group in charge of the grant money. His proposal was approved, and Datema was awarded $25,000 on July 1 to implement Building Dashboard on campus.

Already in place on campuses like Harvard University, the University of Florida, Oberlin College and others, "Building Dashboard is a Web-based application that reports real-time utility usage statistics to building occupants," Datema said. "But that's the technical definition."

He explained that the program, created by Lucid Design Group, works by taking readings every 20 seconds of how much energy is being used in a building and sending that information to a server that turns it into easy-to-understand, brightly colored graphs and charts.

The graphs and charts are updated with every new reading and are posted on a Web site that is accessible to anyone, giving building occupants a way to track how much energy they use. Because the information is updated every 20 seconds, Datema said it's effectively real-time.

"If a whole floor decides to turn off their lights, 20 seconds later it would show, which makes it much more effective than a daily reading," he said.

The program also analyzes the data in a variety of creative units. Electricity usage, for example, is measured in kilowatt-hours by default. But with the click of a button, a user can see the energy consumed in dollar cost, pounds of coal, pounds of carbon dioxide, or even how many laptops and compact fluorescent light bulbs that could run on the energy being used. Datema hopes that if students can visually measure the amount of energy they are using, they will voluntarily use less. His goal is a 15 percent energy reduction, but Lucid's Web site states some buildings have seen reductions of up to 56 percent.

The grant money Datema received covers the cost of the program's software, electricity monitors for four residence halls and a competition module so students living in the halls can compete against other halls to lower energy usage. Lucid also offers monitors that can track heating and cooling usage, natural gas consumption, local weather and on-campus events. The company is willing to work with its customers to create custom modules to monitor other forms of output.

"Harvard hooked up its buses with GPS, so you can see exactly where they are in real-time," Datema said. "If someone was waiting at the bus stop, they could access the site with their phone or Blackberry and figure out exactly how far away their bus is. There's lots of room for innovation."

Each new module costs about $2,500 per building, but Datema hopes that the initial implementation of Building Dashboard will generate enough buzz and interest that people will want to expand it. He is looking for additional partners and sources of funding.

The implementation of Building Dashboard at MU is still in the planning stages. Putting the program in place is going to take more than just Datema, so he is partnering with campus Residential Life, the MU Information Technology Committee, Energy Management and the Student Energy Conservation Society. He said he also has the support of Jim Kelley, the Missouri Students Association president, and Jan Weaver, director of environmental studies.

"Students actually take into consideration how green a campus is. I think if we put the information right in front of them, everything will make much more sense as far as how energy is used," said Brandi Herrman-Rose, residential life marketing specialist, who will assist Datema with promoting Building Dashboard to students. Herrman-Rose said she had seen a Princeton Review study published in the Chronicles of Higher Education that concluded two-thirds of students heading to college at least consider how environmentally friendly a campus is when choosing a college or university to attend.

Datema is not yet sure which residence halls will be hooked up to the program, but based on his talks with Lucid, he doesn't think it will be too long before everything is set up.

"I'm 99.99 percent sure we will have it up by (spring) semester," he said.

To see the Building Dashboard for a Harvard University residence hall, go to


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