On any given cold night in March, dozens of students take walks on Bay State Road. Looking up to the sky, they may see the windows of Myles Standish Hall, a residence at Boston University whose brightly lit rooms create the image of a checkerboard in the dark. Each day, warm bulbs illuminate pages of lecture notes until the early morning hours. Faucets, showers, and washing machines run throughout the day. Heating and cooling machinery operate to create a comfortable living space for students. These are just some of the ways energy is used in one of the nine large dormitories and hundreds of smaller residences across Boston University’s campus.
Yet, for the student body of over 30,000, the process of finding and accessing data for campus building energy use is unclear and illusive. An Emerald Review investigation into the University’s energy monitoring and data collection system – and its highly selective practice of sharing information – has identified loopholes that allow administrators to paint the image of sustainability and progress that may be untruthful.
If a student wanted to find how much energy their residence hall uses on a regular basis, a central repository for this information does not exist. An extensive Google search results in the data dashboard on bu.edu/sustainability, which includes specific information on just 3 buildings out of more than 300 on campus. At different times throughout the day, the figures provided by Acuity Brands, a third-party management firm hired by BU, are blank. There are yearly figures provided on campus-wide energy usage that go back to 2006, with a promising abatement curve showing hopeful future improvements and carbon offset initiative. But without equally available data of energy use across all of campus, the highly selective method of sharing of information raises eyebrows and creates distrust. In fact, the unavailability of a comprehensive dataset hinders the public awareness needed to promote sustainability.
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, a non-profit environmental advocacy group, dorms account for a larger part of a university’s energy usage than most may believe. The average dorm room consumes 30.2 percent of the electrical energy while students aren’t there. That’s because appliances continue to draw power from electrical outlets even when turned off or idle. This public incomprehension of the role residences play in a college’s energy use is the key reason why the presentation of incomplete information is harmful and dangerous. In theory, making all available institution data open to the public could help solve the problem.
“If only it were that easy,” says associate Vice President of Boston University’s Institute of Sustainability, Dennis Carlberg. When approached with concerns and questions about missing data, Professor Carlberg revealed that the Institute of Sustainability is “currently developing a data acquisition system” for this exact purpose. It is expected to “take four or five years to implement.” He explained that measuring and tracking energy usage on campus is more difficult because energy and water consumption for any BU building is grouped together, as there are three central plants on campus; two are on the Charles River Campus (CRC) and one is on the Medical Campus. On a more positive note, Carlburg claimed that he had “just completed the FY21 energy consumption analysis for the campus as a whole” which he offered to share, but only after a meeting with the Director of Data Analytics for Sustainability, Stephen Ellis.
A conversation with Professor Ellis made it clear that the two main sources of energy for buildings at Boston University are electricity and natural gas. Fuel oil is also used but at an insufficient amount of less than 1% compared to the main two main sources.
Analyzing the dataset, with over 38,000 independent meter data points, emphasized the need for more accessible energy statistics. By using an algorithm to calculate the allocation provided by Professor Ellis to get the usage for each residential location at Boston University, I was able to summarize thousands of data points into an easily readable graph that revealed the yearly energy consumption of Boston University’s large residences from 2020 to 2021.
From this newly accessed data, we found that the Student Village (StuVi) dorms used more energy than all other BU dorms combined: over 9 million kWh during the 2021 fiscal year. The average U.S. home uses about 900 kWh per month, or 10,800 kWh per year, giving StuVi residences the equivalent consumption of 833 average U.S. homes. Given that these dorms collectively house nearly 2,000 students these numbers are not disproportionate, but that’s just taking into account electricity usage. According to statistics from the previously mentioned bu.edu/sustainability data dashboard, electricity consumption accounted for only 39% of use at Boston University in 2021.
Going forward, the development of a campus-wide data acquisition system is encouraging, and will be vital information for residents. Yet if such a system will only be accessible in 4-5 years, Boston University needs to do more between now and then to improve student awareness; making energy usage data accessible and easy-to-read for the entire campus is a pivotal step towards a more sustainable Boston University.
This reporting is based on analysis of data sheets obtained by the Emerald Review from Stephen Ellis, Director of Data Analytics at the Institute of Sustainability.
Data Dashboard | Sustainability. bu.edu. (2022). Retrieved 29 April 2022, from https://www.bu.edu/sustainability/vision-progress/data-dashboard/.
Green Your College Dorm Room. NRDC. (2019). Retrieved 29 April 2022, from https://www.nrdc.org/stories/green-your-college-dorm-room.
Student Village | Boston University Housing. bu.edu. (2022). Retrieved 29 April 2022, from https://www.bu.edu/housing/undergrad-housing/stuvi/.