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Campus as a Lab: Energetic Hacking

By Rob Mitchum // November 30, 2016

If conservation starts at home, the University of Chicago campus is a big first step. With a medical center, several dormitories and dining halls, hundreds of laboratories, and buildings that date back to the 19th century, UChicago is one of the city’s largest and most complex energy consumers, leaving a substantial footprint on the local and global environment.

So UChicago students, staff, and faculty looking to make a difference on energy consumption and sustainability don’t have to look far. Facilitating those short-distance efforts is the foremost mission of the Campus as a Laboratory (CaaL) initiative, a partnership between the Office of the Provost, the Office of Sustainability, the CI’s Center for Robust Decision Making on Climate and Energy Policy (RDCEP), UChicago Student Government, the Energy Policy Institute at University of Chicago (EPIC) and UChicago Facilities Services. On November 17th, the second CaaL hackathon of 2016 provided additional momentum to improving energy savings and sustainability on campus by bringing together 50 people for a night of education, exploration, and collaboration at Saieh Hall.


By the end of the night, teams had conducted preliminary surveys of the residence halls and laboratory buildings on campus, finding suggestive evidence of anomalous energy usage for potential further study and intervention. But the night began with a simple mission, laid out by Executive Vice Provost Sian Beilock, to bring the intellectual curiosity of the UChicago community to bear on the campus energy data made available by the University’s Facilities Services.


Elisabeth Moyer, associate professor of atmospheric science and co-primary investigator of CI’s Center for Robust Decision-Making on Climate and Energy Policy (RDCEP), added context to that challenge with information about campus energy usage and how it compares to similar universities around the country. The energy infrastructure of the University was like the “circulatory system supporting education,” she said, and while most people don’t really notice it (until it stops working), it’s a domain ripe with low-hanging fruit for positive change.

“We’re just emerging into the information era,” Moyer said. “Until now we haven’t had the data on hand to say whether, for example, retrofitting an older building would be cost-effective. So this is a great time for students to be working on these issues. Data consolidation, visualization, and exploration can provide important first steps towards major changes in energy efficiency and management practices.”


Hackathon participants could choose from a menu of breakout workshops, covering the basics of building automation, energy prices, and industry analytics or how technical tools such as visualization, databases, and project scoping can be applied to campus energy data. Key university staff also seeded ideas for potential projects, including benchmarking the university’s consumption relative to its peers, predicting when power companies will assess peak usage so that the University can avoid higher charges, and finding new strategies for efficiently operating the power-hungry campus data centers.

Over tacos and cookies, dozens of participants spent their night investigating these problems and others of their own devising, using actual building-level data on electricity, steam, and natural gas usage, local weather, and building energy management systems.


By night’s end, two promising slices of the data had emerged. One student looked at the amount of energy used by the university’s four main residence halls over the past three years. A simple time series revealed that, while many of the buildings exhibited predictable energy usage over different seasons and weather, one showed a wider variance, suggesting potential building automation issues.

Another team looked at the major research facilities on campus, since standard laboratory features such as fume hoods, cold rooms, and frequent air circulation can drain a lot of energy. When energy usage for all of these buildings was compared over time, one particular facility stood out as an energy hog disproportional to its size. Moyer complimented the result as a simple but practical finding that could motivate Facilities Services to dig deeper into any potential issues (and savings) in that particular building.


These results demonstrated what just a few hours of digging into data could do, and the expanding Campus as a Laboratory program hopes to amplify that impact through future events and programs. As part of the hackathon, organizers announced a new Odyssey Metcalf Energy Fellowship program, which will select undergraduates for a summer research position working with Facilities and faculty on ideas developed at CaaL events and practicum courses looking at improving sustainability in campus cafes and the athletic program. With a multitude of efforts across campus, UChicago hopes to turn energy conservation hopes into real effectual practice in our own backyard.

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