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Energy conservation event at Western asks students to power down

Residences compete to see which building can conserve the most.

BY NATALIE SAMSON | SEP 21 2015

Residence staff and students at Western University have turned an energy conservation initiative into a program with serious buzz. Rez Powers Down, which takes place this year from Sept. 28 to Oct. 11, will involve up to 5,000 students living in nine residence halls in a competition to see which building can conserve the most energy. Students in the winning building receive a cash prize for “building improvement” amounting to 25 percent of the estimated monetary savings on the utility bill for all residences combined. And then there’s bragging rights, says Jerry Shum, the assistant residence programming coordinator previously tasked with running Rez Powers Down.

When Mr. Shum was first assigned the event as part of the sustainability portfolio, he thought of it as a boring and dry program. Indeed, when the program began in 2010, it was largely run as an educational initiative with posters and informational resources placed around the residence and dining halls. Things began to change in 2012, when the inter-residence component was introduced. Western launched a real-time campus energy consumption meter that year that allowed staff to easily determine a baseline of each hall’s energy consumption levels.

Mr. Shum took it a step further in 2013, by adding more “active programming”: candlelight dinners with LED or battery-operated tea lights, slumber parties, glow-in-the-dark nail painting nights and recyclable fashion shows. The program even found an unofficial mascot when a student staffer donned a green morphsuit (a full-body spandex costume most often worn by hyped-up sports fans) and walked through the halls offering energy-saving tips and encouragement. Staff have taken their encouragement online by asking students to share pictures of their energy-saving efforts for the chance to win prizes. Last year, they began donating an additional 25 percent of the halls’ utility-bill savings to a global sustainability project of the students’ choosing. This “really pushed Rez Powers Down forward,” Mr. Shum says.

By the end of last year’s Rez Powers Down, each hall reduced energy consumption by between 6.5 and 16.5 percent for a total reduction of 71,000 kWh. According to Angela Treglia, programming coordinator for the office of residence education and programs with the department of housing, it translated into $7,810 in savings for Western. In the span of five years, she figures they’ve saved more than $20,000.

Just as important, she says, in the two weeks following the 2014 challenge, energy use remained below the baseline. For these developments, Rez Powers Down won both the Quality and Productivity Award from the Canadian Association of University Business Officers, and Program of the Year at the Ontario Association of College and University Housing Officers in 2015.

For Mr. Shum, the real sign of the program’s success is the effect it has had on student behaviour. In addition to the staff-led activities, students hosted their own informal events like lights-out movie screenings and study sessions. They even got into the habit of urging one another to take the stairs instead of the elevator.

Ms. Treglia, meanwhile, sees the project as a success because of the learning and experience it has brought student leaders. “It’s the students running the program that are really learning from it.”

That’s certainly true for Mr. Shum. “I love the program now,” he says. And though he’s transitioning into a new role in residence this year, he intends to help out with Rez Powers Down when it comes time – “even if it means running around in a green morphsuit.”

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