Starting Monday, seven Atlantic university campuses will kick off a two-week competition to see which can reduce its energy use most.
Isn’t that cute?
I mean, sure, it’s fun. And laudable, as a team-building exercise and brief peek at what the affluent can comfortably achieve, given the will. (One Mount Allison residence cut its consumption last year by 34 per cent during the competition fortnight.)
But will the sweaters stay on, the unneeded lights stay off and the all-night downloads quit for a whole academic year?
I’m not holding my breath.
It’s not that the folks at these institutions (including competition founder Mount A, two UNB campuses, Acadia, St. F.X., UPEI and Memorial) aren’t somewhat interested in decreasing their energy suck.
It’s that there’s an ozone hole of misunderstanding about who pays for energy waste.
Altruism is a nice idea, but where the rubber hits the environmental road is cash.
“Everyone says they care about the environment,” says Charles Cirtwill of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies. “No one really cares about the environment until it actually saves them money.”
Cirtwill’s no green guru. But he’s a crackerjack education policy analyst. And to make real change, he says, universities need to come at this differently.
“Say, hey guys, whatever money you save, we are going to invest in enhanced extracurricular activity, a tuition cut, whatever it is. There has to be something in it for the people they want to turn off the lights or shut the windows.”
Put another way? University students need to connect the dots. When the temperature is so high in a dorm that every third window is cracked at –10, it’s students, ultimately, paying for the escaping heat.
Homeowners get it. Business owners get it. Even Dickens got it. Ebenezer Scrooge trimmed the wick of his candle, even ascending his blind, black stairs to the waiting ghost of Jacob Marley; “Darkness is cheap,” Dickens wrote, “and Scrooge liked it.”
But unless it’s a direct out-of-pocket cost, most folks can’t see the financial trickle-down of their energy use.
I spent my childhood in a scattering of north Dartmouth rental units where the inside temperature was never more than five degrees off the average pool deck. Shorts in winter was my normal.
What did anyone care, anyway? Heat was included. The understanding being: it was free.
“I don’t pay for my water,” my grandmother told me recently when I pointed out that she’d left the kitchen tap running as she sauntered around her apartment looking for errant supper dishes.
Cirtwill says getting buy-in on this stuff is a pocketbook issue.
And that theory was tested in Edmonton schools in the 1980s.
When the centralized board paid the utility bills, it couldn’t manage to get staff or students to turn off the lights. Then the administration told schools that whatever cost savings they could find, they could keep.
“Teachers realized if they saved $10,000 or $15,000 on electricity, they could turn around and hire an extra teaching assistant, or they could get the bathroom doors replaced on the third floor,” Cirtwill says. “Suddenly it became a community exercise. Everyone was doing it.”
It wouldn’t fly, of course, in a commercial rental environment, where heat and water savings go into landlords’ pockets, not tenants’.
And it might not work in a university setting either.
Because if energy savings go back to students and staff as added services or decreased tuition, there’s no benefit to university administrations. They still have to cut budgets somewhere.
The good news?
“You don’t need huge incentives to make it work,” Cirtwill says. “It’s quite possible for the university to put in place a 50-50 split.”
Win-win is an appropriate cliche here. But there’s another old chestnut that applies beyond dorms obsessed with short-term consumption-counting that we’d all do well to remember: nothing comes for free.