Environment Sustainability

Behind-the-Scenes with the Energy Reduction Challenge

You can’t miss the signs all across campus – at Penn, February is Power Down month. Throughout the month, the Penn Green Campus Partnership has been partnering with groups across campus to host events that bring awareness about the simple ways everyone can reduce their energy footprint. This will culminate on February 22nd with the annual Energy Reduction Challenge that challenges the entire university to reduce their energy consumption. Come behind-the-scenes with student intern Austin Bream who, along with two other student interns as well as full-time staff, have been working on the Energy Reduction Challenge and Power Down month since October.

Anna: What is the Power Down Month and the Energy Reduction Challenge?

Austin: Power down is a month long energy awareness campaign ran out of the Green Campus Partnership every February. It culminates in a single day energy reduction challenge on February 22nd. On that day, for 24 hours, we encourage everyone across the entire university to find ways to reduce their energy footprint. Then, the energy we save on that day will be converted into a monetary donation for CURF’s Climate Action Grants that support undergraduate research in different environment fields.

An: Can you explain how the saved energy is converted into money?

Au: Last year we saved 5.8% in energy and we ended up donating 5,800 dollars. If we save more this year, we’ll donate more!

An: What are some examples of the other event you’ve done throughout February?

Au: There have been many different types of events! Generally, we reach out to different partners to plan events and then help sponsor them. We ran one of our own events on February 8th, a Penn Sweater Day, where we encouraged people to wear a sweater and turn down their thermostat before coming to the Penn Women’s Center for hot chocolate. It ended up being 65 degrees that day, but it was still pretty fun! Penn Sustainability Review is also doing an event on February 21st where they’re bringing in speakers to talk about sustainability and powering down. At the February 10th basketball game, Penn Vs. Columbia, we did collaboration with Penn athletics. We had a sustainability video that included an interview with Dan Garofalo, the sustainability director at Penn, and we also had a table promoting energy awareness. You can find all the events on our website.

An: Who works on this challenge?

Au: Planning starts back in October. On the student side, there are three different students interns. There’s myself, on general planning. There’s Juliana, who works as our communications intern and has been doing a lot of social media and figuring out how we want to communicate what we do. We have a graphic design intern, Amaris, who created all of the infographics. And then there’s the full-time staff, Julian and Rebecca. They work on the general management of the program and also work with external stakeholders. We also work with Heidi, who is our assistant communications director and works to help publicize in outside publications, such as Penn Current and the Almanac. We also work with the sustainability director to make sure we’re all on the same page with our focus.  Some of our initiatives like the final donation amount or a survey we conduct every February on different energy habits all get approved by senior leadership.

An: Could you explain your role specifically as one of the general student interns?

Au: I started working on Power Down last year, and I’m highlighting that because last year was the first year we did this new structure. Last year, what I worked mostly on was a vision for what this program would look like and how to publicize it. This involved gathering a list of all different groups at Penn and what types of events we could do with them. External communications involved drafting out emails we could send, like “Hey, German department, do you want to do an event on German and Energy?” or “Hey, Impact, do you want to do a story?” I also worked with the graphic designs intern and did a lot of work on communications, like writing up different interviews and posting them on our website. This year has been more focused on external stakeholder engagement, rather than last year, when it was about designing the entire program.

An: You touched on this a little bit, but what’s the history of this reduction challenge?

Au: Historically, it was run as a month-long competition between college houses and different building on campus. We’d look each week and update people on how their energy usage compared to other groups. But, there were a lot of problems with that. I think the most important one was, if you think about a student living in the quad who goes to eat breakfast in New College House and then lunch in King’s Court and stops to visit a friend in Stouffer, they’ve touched a whole bunch of buildings but we’re only considering their impact in one. It was also leading to illogical behavior where people were going into other buildings to intentionally increase their energy. So, we wanted to create a program that more accurately reflected how energy is used broadly and focus on how it can actually educate people. The new system was designed to encourage people to work collaboratively and think about how their impact mirrors everyone else’s impact. Also, to use it as a culmination of a series of educational events. So, let’s spend a month teaching people how to reduce energy and then test them out for a day.

An: Are you happy with how it’s been going so far?

Au: Yeah, actually super happy. Because it was an election year and there was a lot happening on campus in November through January, at first we were getting a lot less engagement than we had last year during our planning phase and we were worried. But then it all started pouring in, and it contrast to last year, we’ve seen a lot of power down promotions that we didn’t even know about. I’ll walk through Huntsman Hall and see the power down graphic on the TV screens, and it’s also up in Arch and Houston Hall and in the dining halls. We had lawn signs, some of which we created and some of which other groups just decided to do on their own. It’s been a lot of really positive engagement with the program that we didn’t necessarily promote, so it’s sort of becoming this self-fulfilling program and that’s really cool to see.

An: What do you think motivates people to get so engaged and to want to participate?

Au: I think that for a lot of groups that are involved in sustainability, they always want to engage in this topic but need a medium to do it. One of our chief partners in promoting this challenge is building administrators. In each building on campus, there are people who are in charge of managing that building, and part of that requires them to look at its energy footprint.So, they’re constantly trying to think of new ways to reduce their energy impact. This gives them a way to try out those new ways and have someone to back them up, and it creates a fun vibe, like, “Let’s see how much can our building reduce this year, can we reduce more than last year?” So, I think it’s really about groups that care about sustainability but need an extra push or a medium in which to express their views.

An: For people reading this, what would you say for why they should participate in this event?

Au: I think one reason is if we save more energy, ultimately we are supporting student research. That’s one main reason to do it, to benefit fellow students. I think the other reason is that there are a lot of really simple things you can do that impact your footprint that people don’t realize are so simple or so impactful. This gives you an opportunity to try it out, try doing things you don’t usually do. Try taking the stairs today instead of the elevator, or wash your clothes on the cold water setting. Save energy in simple ways, and see that it’s actually really simple and that you can do it. You’re only going to live at Penn for so long, and once you go on and start paying your own utility bills and actually start seeing that impact, it will be really good to know about the ways that you can change it.

An: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Au: One thing I didn’t mention is that this year we’re also partnering with the academic theme, media. Our slogan is “Signal a Change” and we’re encouraging people to think about the combination of energy and how it’s represented in the media, which I think is really relevant this year. Energy is often associated for people with oil or a pipeline and we see all the time how energy is produced in the news, but we don’t see a lot about how energy is used on the consumption side. I think the biggest thing, though, is that sustainability and energy is not covered, period. It’s not considered that important in news. For us, media is also about understanding different ways to communicate, such as lawn signs. Is that a way of getting to people who we can’t reach through an email or an insert in dining hall?


An: What would you say is the number one thing you personally do to reduce your footprint?

Au: I do take the stairs everyday, fortunately I live on the fourth floor, so it’s not a huge commitment! I think the bigger thing I try to do is be conscious of energy being used when no one is there, mostly with lights. As an RA in a dorm, I came up with a nickname Dr. Dark that I tried to get the other RAs to call me because I would go around turning all the lights off in common rooms. For me that was always such a simple thing, just flip the switch, no one is there!