The October Energy Challenge brings another month of sustainability

It’s the time of year to be conscientious about energy use. Every year, Allegheny College hosts the October Energy Challenge, a campus-wide effort to reduce energy usage. The event has shown success in the past and results in money saved in energy costs. The money saved is used to fund sustainability projects across campus, including the water bottle refill stations and the solar panels on the roof of  Steffee Hall of Life Sciences.

What ultimately leads to the success of the October Energy Challenge? According to Eric Pallant, professor and chair of the environmental science and sustainability, the answer lies in the approach. 

“The hardest part of saving energy is changing,” Pallant said. “We always agree whenever we promote energy savings to never allow ourselves to use guilt or negative programming.”

In terms of misconceptions students might have, Pallant worries that students may feel energy conservation is just “something environmentalists do,” or that “those guys just want us to freeze to death in the dark.” 

“I feel like sometimes people feel like (energy conservation) doesn’t make a difference,” said Kelly Boulton, sustainability coordinator. “What the (October) Energy Challenge really shows is that maybe one person turning off one light doesn’t have a huge impact, but when lots of different people turn off one light during a time frame that we’ve set aside, it really does make a difference.”

There’s empirical evidence that the October Energy Challenge is an effective way to raise awareness about energy use on campus. A study on the challenge, co-authored by Boulton, was was published in the “International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education.” Several of the contributors to the study, including Pallant, are part of the Department of Environmental Science and Sustainability at Allegheny. 

The study, “Energy challenges: isolating results due to behavior change,” showed that over a period of five years the challenge averaged a  5.6% energy reduction. The study also took into account other factors like weather and seasonal changes to show that their change was purely due to behavioral habits developed during the challenge. 

While a 5.6% reduction of energy use might not seem like much, the challenge has saved over $35,000 over the five years analyzed in the study. The study also found that the challenge reduced energy consumption for the rest of the academic year.

In an effort to become more effective at reducing energy use, the challenge has changed over time. It used to be a competition between residence halls, the idea being that competition would increase morale for the challenge. Each week, a comparison between each residence hall’s energy use are posted on the door of each building. 

The concept has some backing, according to Pallant. 

“That turns out to be the most effective way of getting people to conserve,” Pallant said.

However, Boulton decided to move away from rewarding the residence halls with the most energy conserved because she felt it was unfair. 

“The Brooks complex is never going to reduce all their electricity as much as other places on campus because they have a dining hall,” Boulton said.

The October Energy Challenge is an example of how individual efforts on a large scale can make an impact. Students can save energy in a variety of ways, some examples including turning off lights in unoccupied rooms, unplugging electronic devices not in use and completely shutting off devices when they are not being used. 

Pallant and James Hurley, ’22, an intern for Boulton, both discussed how common appliances such as dryers, hair dryers and curlers use large amounts of energy. 

“Try to not charge your phone as much, and that helps your phone’s life,” Hurley said. 

Boulton said that she would hear stories about entire residence halls that were working together in one room rather than powering individual rooms.

“Everybody was leaving their rooms, they were all gathering in a lounge and doing their homework there,” Boulton said. “All their lights were off except in one room.”

Beyond saving money to make the campus more sustainable, the October Energy Challenge helps students develop energy conversing habits. 

“I think what we’re trying to do as an educational experience is to say to students, and faculty and administration, that your behaviors here are important,” Pallant said.