Seeing Stars, Saving Energy


August 25, 2009

Student uses energy efficient lamp
Shelley Meaux, a student in Tulane University's ENERGY STAR showcase dorm, uses energy-efficient lamps and applicances. (PBurch/Tulane University Publications)
In 1992, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency introduced ENERGY STAR as a voluntary labeling program that identifies and promotes energy-efficient products in order to reduce greenhouse emissions. Today, ENERGY STAR estimates that it saves businesses, organizations and consumers about $19 billion in energy cost savings each year, and some colleges and universities are really starting to capture these savings.

One of the first schools to actively embrace ENERGY STAR appliances in residence halls was Tulane University. First launched in 2001, each year Tulane offers one or more lucky incoming freshmen the chance to live in an energy-efficient Showcase Dorm room.

“We tried to get a grant for the project, but that didn’t work out,” says Shelley Meaux, senior program coordinator for Tulane’s Center Bioenvironmental Research and one of the first students selected for the pilot Showcase Dorm room. “So we asked different manufacturers of ENERGY STAR products for donations instead.”

“We took people on tours,” explains Meaux. “We took the president [of Tulane] and other administrators on tours and explained to them what ENERGY STAR was, and the president was so impressed he asked us to do his office as an ENERGY STAR office.”

Coordinators for the Showcase Dorm room realized that the program would work best if targeted toward incoming freshmen, since upperclassmen would have likely already purchased the appliances and electronics they needed for school-stereos, lamps, computers, refrigerators, etc.

Tulane estimates that an ENERGY STAR dorm room uses 50 percent less energy than a dorm room equipped with average appliances and lighting, and if all 3,000 Tulane students who live on the uptown campus equipped their rooms with EPA-labeled appliances, specifically computers, refrigerators, lamps, televisions, DVD players, clocks and cordless phones, the school would reduce its greenhouse emissions by one million pounds and save over $60,000 in energy costs annually.

Tulane has offered its Showcase Dorm room most years since 2001, “but there have been interruptions, like [Hurricane] Katrina,” says Meaux, “and there have been years we couldn’t get the appliances donated.”

Tulane hosts an essay-writing contest for incoming freshman who hope to win the bounty of ENERGY STAR products. The questions posed for this year’s essay contest included, “Why should young people care about energy efficiency and the environmental impacts of energy use?” and “If you could do anything to reach the student body, how would you bring their attention to the issue of energy efficiency and conservation, and how would you get them involved?”

One of the bonus outcomes to the Showcase Dorm room was that prior to Tulane launching their program in 2001, ENERGY STAR did not rate dorm-room-sized refrigerators.

“We were looking for [a mini-fridge] to save energy,” explains Meaux, “and there weren’t any with ENERGY STAR labels smaller than about seven cubic feet. And it was after our initial dorm room that they did start labeling them, so we like to take credit for bringing that to their attention.”

As far as appliances go, refrigerators are some of the largest consumers of energy because they run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and one school in particular is keeping a close eye on the refrigerators on their campus.

Changing to an energy-efficient bulb
Cassandra Pace installs EPA-approved bulbs in her dorm room. (PBurch/Tulane University Publications)
“About 65 percent of the energy used in a dorm room is from the refrigerator,” says Brett Pasinella, program coordinator for the University of New Hampshire’s Office of Sustainability.

The University of New Hampshire (UNH) was the first institution in the country to earn an ENERGY STAR label for student residence halls and has more labeled buildings, in total, than any other campus in the United States. When compared to the national institutional average for energy costs, UNH saves about $4 million a year through their energy retrofits, educational programs and commitment to ENERGY STAR.

In 2007, UNH passed a resolution strongly encouraging the purchase of ENERGY STAR products for any official UNH business or department. In March of 2009, UNH students followed suit and passed their own resolution strongly encouraging incoming freshmen to purchase EPA-labeled products as well. And to help with the purchase of these products, the school partnered with a local hardware store and Best Buy franchise to provide student discounts on ENERGY STAR products.

“As part of our President’s climate commitment,” explains Pasinella, “we are going to change to having ENERGY STAR required for all official school purchases,” which will start in September 2009. “Students then might volunteer to mirror that resolution sometime in the future.”

Like Tulane, UNH will be setting up its own Showcase Dorm room next semester. Fittingly, “the room is actually going to be in Congreve Hall,” says Pasinella, “which was the first ENERGY STAR residence hall in the country.”

While ENERGY STAR labels remain one of the most widely recognized indicators that an appliance adheres to stringent energy-saving standards, the gap is closing a little between today’s labeled and non-labeled appliances. “ENERGY STAR products still save energy,” says Tulane’s Shelley Meaux, “it just isn’t as big anymore because non-labeled appliances have gotten more efficient over time.” But until other appliances catch up, schools like Tulane and UNH are going to take every ounce of savings they can get.

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Published: August 25, 2009