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News May 26, 2006
Commencement Issue

Green Innovations Grow in Oberlin
New Programs Green Up the Campus
Watching Resource Use: This monitor in the Adam Joseph Lewis Center was the first to show students real-time feedback of their energy consumption.

In the last semester, Oberlin College installed a comprehensive system to monitor and display the electricity and water consumption in the dormitories. The system, unique to Oberlin, was conceived and executed by Associate Professor of Environmental Studies and biology John Petersen, OC ’88, and a team of past and current students.

Oberlin has a reputation for being environmentally innovative, but students and faculty have commented recently that Oberlin’s progress has slowed and that the College risks falling behind its peer institutions. The monitoring system and other recent environmental initiatives aim to help retain Oberlin’s position as an environmental leader.

“The objective [of the monitoring system] is to provide real-time feedback that allows students to better conserve environmental resources,” said Petersen. The hope is that the system will give students more responsibility in their energy use decisions, turning dorm living into an educational opportunity.

The monitoring system is now installed in the majority of dorms on campus and can be viewed on a large screen in the Science Center or online at It is the result of Phase II of the EPA’s “People, Prosperity and Planet” (P3) project, funded by $95,000 in grants raised from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Ohio Foundation of Independent Colleges. Oberlin College has chipped in $12,000 for Phase II as well as the manpower of facilities personnel for Phase I.

The College first received $10,000 to perform Phase I of P3. For Phase I, Petersen and students — including seniors Gavin Platt, Kate Weinberger, Chris Fry and recent alum Vladi Shunturov, OC ’05 — organized a dorm energy competition where students competed to conserve the most energy within their dorms.

The competition was a success, saving the College 68,500 kilowatts of electricity and 20,500 gallons of water. Because of these results, the Oberlin’s P3 team was one of only six P3 teams nationally to receive Phase II funding from the EPA. It was the only small liberal arts college to do so.

For Phase II, faculty, students and facilities personnel have already expanded the monitoring system created in Phase I of the project to encompass most of the dorms on campus. It will eventually provide 1930 students with real-time feedback of their energy consumption.

According to the environmental studies department newsletter written by Petersen and Platt, by the end of the summer the website will allow students to view electricity consumption on individual floors of many of the monitored dorms and in several cooking and dining facilities.

“More than 90 percent of Oberlin Colleges greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to resource use (particularly electricity and heating) in campus buildings,” said Platt. “We believe, and research suggests, that people’s personal choices can substantially affect resource use in buildings. “

The P3 team also plans to install another real-time feedback screen, like the one in the Science Center, in a high-traffic, on-campus location.

Phase II will also be more multifaceted, as new members of the faculty will join the P3 team, including environmental studies professor Katy Janda and psychology professors Stephan Mayer and Cindy Frantz.

The P3 project is attracting positive attention. The team was presented with the First Annual P3 award this May for its data monitoring and display system. At the competition in Washington D.C., members of the U.S. Senate and the Pentagon expressed interest in the project, according to Petersen.

“Stephan Mayer and Cindy Frantz are working to quantify the effects of this technology on student attitude and behavior toward the natral environment,” said Petersen.

Platt, who first became involved with the project in his sophomore year, has been one of the primary students involved with Phase II of the project, working last summer on the initial designing and planning. Fry, a computer science major, has been largely responsible for managing the data monitoring and display system.

“What’s particularly innovative about the project is our ability to convey resource consumption and the environmental and economic consequences of that consumption in multiple currencies to a non-technical audience,” said Platt.

In addition to implementing the resource monitoring system, the College is taking other environmentally-minded measures. At Petersen’s urging, the College joined two organizations this spring: the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education and The United Green Building Council.

AASHE is an association of colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada that works to promote sustainability in higher education, and the UGBC is the organization that developed the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system.

Students and faculty have repeatedly urged the College to adopt the LEED standard in its new building plans this spring.

“There is no new formal commitment on the part of the administration, but the fact that they are serious about addressing the issues was evident in the meetings with potential architects for Phase II housing,” said Petersen. He added that the Student Senate proposal, which has not yet been voted on, has helped push campus-wide thinking on the issue.

In a letter to College President Nancy Dye written earlier in the year, Petersen emphasized the need for continued improvement.

“We are making progress at Oberlin, but at a pace that allows other institutions to move ahead of us,” he wrote. “It is my view that Oberlin should be out front and should be known for our forward-thinking environmental initiatives in the very same way that it is known for historical initiatives on issues of race, gender and labor.”


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