Research engineer makes a big idea bigger

By Michelle Schwartz
Communications and Marketing Coordinator
Global Institute of Sustainability
It's a bright idea.  Monitor a building's energy use, put the information under the noses of the building's occupants, and use it to persuade them to reduce their energy consumption. Brilliant!

ASU research engineer Joby Carlson thought so, too. But the lab manager for ASU's National Center of Excellence on SMART Innovations wanted to take it one step further.  Or really several steps.  He wanted to incorporate water and waste with energy data, he wanted to compare multiple buildings on campus, and he wanted to teach people exactly how they could reduce their resource use.  Oh, and he wanted to use ASU talent to put it all into a web-based tool that anyone could understand.

The project that evolved from all this is called Campus Metabolism. While it has been in production less than a year, it already accomplishes nearly all of the original goals. Says Carlson: "A lot of people go through their lives not knowing how much energy or water they use daily or how much of their trash goes to landfills versus recycling centers. In order for people to understand how their actions impact the environment, they have to see the information for themselves."

As it turns out, ASU is an ideal place for Carlson to make his idea a reality. Local utility provider APS Energy Services already tracks electricity use in more than 50 Tempe campus buildings, and Central Heating and Cooling monitors each building's demand for heated or cooled air and water. In addition, ASU will soon be home to one of the largest solar installations in the country.

It sounds like right place, right tools, right time.  But could Carlson get the right people at the table to make it happen?  Absolutely. The project actively involves representatives from across the university and beyond, including the Global Institute of Sustainability, ASU Facilities Management, the National Center of Excellence on SMART Innovations, University Student Initiatives, Barrett, the Honors College, the office of the University Architect, the College of Design, the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering, the Department of Psychology, the ASU student chapter of Engineers Without Borders, and APS Energy Services.

"To see architects, engineers, sociologists, biologists, web designers, students, faculty, staff, investors all at same table talking about one site is pretty exciting," says Carlson.  "It shows that management at ASU is interested in change, that sustainability is an institutional objective, and that we're interdisciplinary in approaching problems not only in research but in daily operations."

Campus Metabolism debuted on May 15, 2008, at the grand opening of the Global Institute of Sustainability building. At that time, it included only energy data and only for that one structure. A new version rolls out October 20 and includes energy data for 13 buildings plus news and tips for living sustainably.  At the Campus Metabolism website, users can view energy data not only in kilowatt hours and BTUs, but in other measures they understand, such as how many CFLs that energy could light up or the number of gallons of gasoline that would have to be burned to generate it. In addition, users can easily compare buildings against one another or against historical data - last week, last month, or last year.

It's a cool new tool, but why should we care? With one of the largest student and staff populations in the country, ASU is larger than many small cities. This means relatively tiny changes in the university's resource policies or consumption habits can produce a large impact.  Carlson believes that Campus Metabolism is the tool to help make that happen.  "In any situation, if you can quantify something accurately, you can understand how your decisions impact the system," he says. "By visualizing energy use trends on campus we can now, as we make decisions, see whether those decisions are having positive or negative impacts.  This is the only way we can make quantifiable progress toward achieving sustainability."

Others seem to agree.  Campus Metabolism has been online for only a few months, and already it has received national attention from media and universities interested in the technology and the remarkable collaboration that was required to make it possible.

Ultimately, the project is all about enabling change. Says Carlson: "Campus Metabolism can help the ASU community make good decisions that will reduce our carbon footprint. This collaboration shows that ASU is walking the talk - not just talking in classrooms, but actually changing how we do things. I hope people will leave ASU with an awareness of how everything they do has an effect on the world around them."

Visit Campus Metabolism.