Energy User Engagement on Campus

Riley Triggs
Lecturer, Design Division
Department of Art and Art History
College of Fine Arts

Energy on UT Campus

photo of web interface by SmarteBuilding
Fig. 1: Raw data is compiled in a web interface by SmarteBuilding. Individual room data is available to present to the end user for individual use awareness.

The University of Texas at Austin has handled its own energy needs since 1929 through a system of chilled water, steam, and power generation for about 17 million square feet of building space and roughly 70,000 consumers on campus. Currently, Utilities and Energy Management’s own power station uses roughly the same amount of fuel it did in 1977 producing half as much electricity for only seven million square feet of offices, classrooms and support facilities. This is made possible through practices like operating the country’s most efficient chilling station and taking remarkable steps to increase efficiency in energy creation and distribution for the Austin campus. Over $150 million dollars of improvements to the energy system have already been paid for by decreased fuel usage from these improvements to the supply side of the campus energy equation. Utilities and Energy Management have gone just about as far as they can on the supply side of the energy equation towards creating a highly efficient system, and now it is time to look to the users on campus to help from the demand side.

To engage the end-users in UT’s effort to decrease campus energy consumption, the Center for Sustainable Development coordinated the efforts of faculty from the School of Architecture and the College of Fine Arts Design Division in the UT Smart Building Initiative (UTSBI). UTSBI was originally funded through a grant from the Longhorn Innovation Fund for Technology, with critical supplemental funding also coming from the Provost’s office. The goal is to make students, faculty, and staff aware of the amount of energy they use, and to make smart energy usage a part of their everyday routine. The hope is that, through awareness and education, a cultural shift will occur in thought and practices of energy usage on campus. The long-term goal is to scale the best techniques and technologies developed in this pilot building exercise into a campus-wide program that is integrated into the everyday practices of 70,000 energy consumers that results in a significant change in the costs and environmental impact of energy use on campus.

UT Smart Building Initiative (UTSBI)

UTSBI intends to combine global concerns of carbon footprints, climate change, and the Earth’s ecosystems as well as local concerns of economics and comfort by increasing awareness of users and how they relate individually to the local and global concerns of building energy. In order to do this, energy usage is scaled down to individual room usage, and real time monitoring and feedback are provided to the individuals of the building in a meaningful way. The level of importance and innovation in enabling consumers to track and manage their energy consumption is great if one values the judgment and allocation of resources by technology giants Google and Microsoft, who, until recently, built and ran generalized home energy monitoring programs for consumers, Google PowerMeter and Microsoft Hohm, respectively. After running Hohm since 2009, in a press release Microsoft stated that the discontinuation of its service as of May 2012 was due to “slow overall market adoption.” Challenges are still unresolved in engaging users to make energy consumption a personal concern.

sample image of check-in tracking
Figure 2: Check-ins are tracked to assess room usage and attribute energy usage to individuals and accessed through smart phones and web interfaces.

There are three main areas of activity for UTSBI:

1) researching and installing an energy monitoring system in an existing campus building in order to provide base room-level data to analyze electricity usage for facility managers

2) building on student-developed indoor localization technology, develop software that would enable a sample group of volunteers (faculty and staff) to self-track and thus develop room-level energy consumption data through smartphones; and

3) pilot software and run tests to see how individual users might be influenced by the visualization of their personal energy consumption data.

Sensor Installation

SBI chose UT Architecture’s Sutton Hall as a development environment because it is a typical older building on campus, and it has a community that is already sustainability-minded and open to participation in such a line of inquiry. Partnering with SmarteBuilding, a local energy monitoring company, the SBI wired Sutton Hall for room-level energy monitoring. This required an onerous process of understanding and documenting the building’s electrical wiring because of the age and many changes to the wiring system over the years. This was crucial, however, because every light and outlet had to be attributed to a particular circuit in order for monitors to be accurately installed and to provide useful data. This provides a steady real time stream of energy usage that can then be presented to end-users in the building.

Location of Users within a Building

Over the past decade, developments in indoor localization technology have made it possible to locate individuals within buildings. By tracking the location of energy users and their localized energy impacts, these new technologies have the potential to transform the manner in which buildings are managed and renovated. UTSBI began with a robust proposal that would make it the first research endeavor of its kind to marry energy efficiency, indoor localization, and user education in a university setting. The University of Richmond and Oberlin University both employed interactive energy monitoring technologies in their dormitories, but no other project has paired their applied energy efficiency research with data on indoor localization. This initiative is to be the first research endeavor of its kind to marry energy efficiency, indoor localization and user education in a university setting. Factors emerged that prevented full implementation of the proposed work.

sample image of the CURB application
Figure 3: The CURB application used as web and smartphone interface to the data. The next step is to make this room level information relevant and relatable to building users.

Barriers to Indoor Localization

The SBI team proposed indoor localization as a method to passively and accurately identify the location of objects/people inside buildings using existing pervasive wireless networks. The research team abandoned this component because Apple, Inc. currently blocks wireless signal strength information from certain mobile computing devices. Indoor localization could be re-instated as a component at a later date when 1) this information is unlocked by all cell phone manufacturers or 2) a server-side system is installed that can perform the same task is installed by the UT IT Services. University Information Technology is looking at the possibility of expanding the existing campus WIFI infrastructure, in part, for other uses of indoor localization.

User Involvement

Instead of the indoor localization, a cross-platform application called CURB was developed to allow users to manually “check-in” to a specific location within Sutton Hall to tie room usage levels to energy usage and to allow occupants to see what part of the energy consumption in the building they are responsible for. Our pilot study using the application engaged roughly 300 individuals (students, faculty, and staff) working in Sutton Hall to participate in a study that directly links energy efficiency data with user behavior at the scale of the room, instead of the entire building. Over the course of two weeks at the end of the
spring semester, building occupants learned of the project through fliers, class presentations and teacher involvement.

Pilot Engagement Program

Results of the pilot test were mixed. Usage of the CURB application to check in to building rooms was limited overall. However, when users were directly informed of the project and workings of the application, results were immediate and directly evident in numbers and location of user involvement. Over the course of the pilot, 263 “check-ins” were recorded out of the approximately 300 regular users of the building. Return and casual engagement is thought to be limited, which is attributable, in part, to the rudimentary state of the application and visualization interfaces. Both of these items are being addressed and improved upon during continued work this fall to refine both the lobby monitor and the cross-platform application to make them more informative, more interactive, and more meaningful. It should be noted that the initial pilot was run at the end of the semester, a time when students are quite busy and set in their patterns—a scheduling issue that can be avoided during further testing this fall.

Going Forward

The focus of UTSBI thus far has been on the technology of the hardware and software systems required to provide accurate real time energy usage data. With these systems in place, the next steps are to transform the raw data into useful and persuasive information to affect change in user behavior. Currently, work on making this data relevant to students is being done for use in web and building monitor interfaces. The strategy is to not only make the information relevant, but to make the information exchange as effortless and transparent to the building occupants as possible to lower the threshold of engagement so that more people will be informed. This will bring the information closer to the user and allow for an easier next step, which is to bring the user to action in saving energy by changing their daily use of it on campus.

Additional data is also being considered for inclusion in UTSBI. Discussions are under way with energy and maintenance staff about the inclusion of steam and chilled water usage, which accounts for the other half of energy usage on campus. Over the course of the next year, another series of participatory trials with newly developed interfaces and information delivery will be performed across a longer time period to track energy usage throughout the building. Data during these trials will be compared to previous years’ data, and it is hoped that the increased awareness of individual building users will affect energy usage.


Ulrich Dangel, Architecture
Matt Fajkus, Architecture
Gloria Lee, Design
Riley Triggs, Design
Barbara Brown Wilson, UT Center for Sustainable Development (Project Administration)

René Pinnell, Design
Blake Smith, Architecture
Anil Attuluri, Computer Science
Anil Katti, Engineering
Ryan Bruner, Design
Elizabeth “EB” Brooks, Community and Regional Planning
Jesse Mainwaring, Architecture
Jeffrey McCord, Architecture

Jim Walker, Director of Sustainability
Eric Hepburn, Architecture, Director of Information Technology

Mike Kounnas, Founder
Michael Cation, Founder

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