Professor Patricia Culligan and Ph.D. student Rishee Jain, both of the civil engineering and engineering mechanics department, are launching a yearlong study to measure the amount of energy consumed by some residents in Watt, the residence hall on 113th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue.
“Energy consumption, particularly reducing energy consumption, is a huge challenge in the 21st century,” Culligan said.
The researchers are trying to identify factors that could motivate students to limit their own energy consumption, such as social networking and peer pressure. Residents who enrolled in the study were asked to list up to four friends who also live in Watt.
“We're hoping to see that social networks actually matter” when it comes to energy usage, Jain said.
Sensors have been installed in the basement of Watt to monitor students' energy consumption in real time. Residents who volunteer to participate in the study will be able to compare their energy consumption amounts not only with each other, but also with data from other countries.
Watt resident Brittany Becker, SEAS '14, signed up to participate in this year's study. She said she uses energy-efficient light bulbs and cooks frequently with the gas stove in her room.
“I'm just interested because I really have no concept of how much energy we use,” Becker said.
This is far from the first Columbia study this year on energy reduction. In January, Bianca Howard, a Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering, led a study that mapped energy consumption around New York City. Culligan and Jain's research is ambitious, she said, because pushing for more awareness of energy consumption among college students is challenging.
“In a dorm, you don't have to pay your electricity—it's already incorporated into your bill so you don't really have a monitoring stimulus to reduce your energy consumption,” Howard said. This study will “provide that stimulus.”
Culligan and Jain said they think giving consistent feedback to participants will affect the amount of energy they use. Jain said that previous studies found that “people actually do save energy just by receiving information” on energy usage.
In 2010, then-professor John Taylor conducted a similar study in Watt for three weeks and found that students who received advice on reducing energy consumption in a group were more likely to have followed the advice than those who were advised individually.
The results of the study will have effects beyond Columbia's walls. Jain said the energy students save will contribute to Mayor Michael Bloomberg's PlaNYC initiative, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2017. The research team chose Watt because of its history as an apartment building, ensuring that the results could be applied to other buildings throughout the city.
Watt residents who reduce their energy consumption the most will choose from a selection of prizes, but the chance to be greener is enough for some students.
“New York City as a whole is learning to try to become greener,” Becker said. “I think it's cool for Columbia to join that initiative.”