Final Report: Developing and Assessing the Impact of a Socio-Technological Resource-Use Feedback System for Improving the Environmental Performance of Buildings and Institutions

EPA Grant Number: SU832466
Title: Developing and Assessing the Impact of a Socio-Technological Resource-Use Feedback System for Improving the Environmental Performance of Buildings and Institutions
Investigators: Petersen, John E. , Frantz, Cynthia , Janda, Kathryn , Mayer, Stephen
Institution: Oberlin College
EPA Project Officer: Nolt-Helms, Cynthia
Phase: II
Project Period: September 1, 2005 through August 31, 2006
Project Amount: $74,991
RFA: P3 Awards: A National Student Design Competition for Sustainability Focusing on People, Prosperity and the Planet - Phase 2 (2005) Recipients Lists
Research Category: P3 Challenge Area - Energy , Pollution Prevention/Sustainable Development , P3 Awards , Sustainability


The challenge that we addressed in our P3 project was to develop and test a data monitoring and display system that would enable easy observation and interpretation of resource use as it occurs at scales ranging from individual dormitory floors to an entire campus. Our objective was to develop, and deploy data monitoring and display technology to engage, educate, motivate and empower building occupants to conserve resources. The research premise was that easily accessible feedback on resource use in buildings would increase both awareness and motivation to act in ways that change attitudes and lower resource use. While the broad scale goal was to change attitudes and behaviors, accomplishing this goal was premised on three central tasks: 1) developing new monitoring and display technologies, 2) testing the efficacy of the technology and improving its performance and 3) developing a product and business capable of successfully disseminating the technology within the marketplace.

At the start of this project, a review of existing technology indicated that there was no integrated product or even combination of products in the market that could accomplish the objectives of collecting, processing and displaying resource use in the fashion we envisioned. Therefore, in Phase-I of the P3 project we developed a prototype system that combined: 1) off-the-shelf water and energy flow sensors; 2) newly available wireless datalogging and networking hardware; and 3) networking, database management and display software that we custom developed for data display for a non-technical audience. The goal was to use these to generate easily interpretable real-time data on energy and water use on individual floors in two Oberlin College dormitories and then to deliver this information in easily interpretable graphs and gauges to students, faculty, and facilities managers through a web site and on public display monitors in the lobbies of the dorms. We termed the Oberlin implementation of this technology the “Campus Resource Monitoring System”.

We developed four approaches to quantify the impact of feedback on student attitude and behavior: 1) we compared energy and water use in dormitories before, during and after a period during which we displayed feedback to dormitory residents on a web site; 2) we recorded and analyzed the origin, target-page and number of unique and repeat visitors to the data display website; 3) we compared resource use reductions in dorms with low- and with high-resolution data; 4) we surveyed dorm occupants to determine what conservation strategies they had employed and whether they had changed their attitudes.

Having achieved a high degree of success in stimulating resource conservation with the approach discussed above, in Phase II of the P3 program we set about to translate the prototype system into a more robust technology that could be scaled to incorporate more buildings and could ultimately be developed into a product and a successful business capable of disseminating this product. Lucid Design Group, the company formed in 2004 by members of the P3 design team, ultimately took over principle responsibility for translating the concept developed through P3 into a product. Research at Oberlin continues to focus on the effects of the technology on attitudes and behaviors and on developing novel modes of feedback.

Summary/Accomplishments (Outputs/Outcomes):

The P3 Phase-I pilot project proved to be enormously successful with respect to achieving the technological, educational, economic and environmental objectives outlined in our proposal. Despite significant technological challenges, we were able to successfully design, build and test all of the components of the monitoring and display system and implement a prototype real-time feedback system that stimulated significant reductions in resource use in two dormitories. Likewise, in Phase II of the project, our team was successful in developing a more robust and scalable version of the technology that continues to monitor and display electricity use in 16 dormitories (approximately 80% of dormitory residents on the Oberlin campus) and 13 residential houses. During the course of the project, several of the students initially involved have moved on from Oberlin to careers in Lucid Design Group.

Studies conducted as part of Oberlin’s P3 program have demonstrated that, in the context of campus-wide “dorm energy competition”, students in dormitories receiving real-time feedback reduce their resource consumption dramatically. Many of the findings of the P3 funded study were reported in a 2007 peer-reviewed paper published in the International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education (see publication list in Executive Summary). These, together with more recent research findings and developments are summarized below.

Resources use reductions: Substantial decreases in electricity use have been documented during periods in which students are provided with feedback. In the 2007 study referenced above between the baseline period and period during which feedback was supplied, the winning dorms reduced average electricity consumption by 56%. The mean percentage reduction for the 20 dorms that were part of the study was 13%. These data suggest that providing students with easily accessible web-based feedback can be a very effective means of lowering electricity use.

Financial savings: In the 2007 dormitories saved a total of 68,500 kWh of electricity during the two-week period during which feedback was provided. At market prices in Oberlin of 7.5 cents/kWh, this amounts to an electricity savings of $5,120. Dormitories saved 20,500 gallons of water. Combined savings in freshwater and wastewater fees amount to $260, providing a total resource conservation cost savings of $5,380 for the two-week period. For a small residential college like Oberlin (1,800 students reside in the dorms included in the study), these savings are considerable.

Pollution reduction: Pollution equivalents can be calculated based on the mix of electrical generation facilities in our local electrical grid (>90% coal-fired generation in Oberlin). Again, for the 2007 study, 68,500 kWh reductions in electricity during the two-week feedback period resulted in a decreased emission of 148,000 lbs of CO2, 1,360 lbs of SO2 and 520 lbs of NOx. Effects of high- vs. low-resolution feedback: As part of the 2007 study we compared groups provided with real-time data display (“high resolution” feedback) to those who receive only weekly information on electricity consumption (“low resolution feedback”). The average electricity use reduction by dorm residents in the dorms with high-resolution feedback was 55%, compared to a 13% average reduction for residents of dorms receiving low-resolution feedback. The high-resolution feedback group also visited the dormEnergy web site more often (average = 4.8 visits/resident) than did the low-resolution group (average = 2.5 visits/resident). These data suggest that high-resolution real-time data stimulate more interest and greater electricity conservation than does lower-resolution feedback.

Educational value (at Oberlin and beyond): The number of visitors to the dormEnergy website and the high level of discussion on campus about the website suggest that the project was very successful in stimulating interest in resource use in Oberlin dormitories. In sum, for the 2007 study the pages on the website received a total of 4,000 hits during the two-week resource feedback period. These website visits were made by 1,000 unique computers (assessed by tracking computer IP addresses). Students who have participated in the P3 research team received well-deserved credit for their collaborative efforts on this project, including co-authorship on peer-reviewed publications and talks at national and even international meetings (in the publications list in Executive Summary, student authors are marked with asterisks). Two students Vladislav Shunturov (OC ’05), and Jenna Trostle (OC ’08) built honors research and thesis on the project. Each year since development, teams of students in the introductory environmental studies course, Environment and Society, have been engaged in running Oberlin’s “Dormitory Energy Competition”. During these competitions, the entire campus is exposed to educational materials developed by these students around the theme of energy conservation.

Oberlin’s Campus Resource Monitoring System has considerable attention from other campuses and has served as a model of the potential value of real-time feedback. Oberlin’s P3 team has been very active in communicating the results of the P3 project in a variety of venues, and has received a variety of awards (nearly $1 million) since the start of the project (see publication, presentation and awards listed in Executive Summary). When we have quantified hits to the Campus Resource Monitoring System website, we generally see as many originating from off campus addresses (i.e. from people interested in the technology but not living in monitored facilities) as from on campus addresses. Kath Williams, Education Coordinator of the US Green Building Council informed us that she uses Oberlin’s Campus Resource Monitoring System website as an example in her “LEED-EB” training workshops.

Development of “Dormitory Energy Orbs”: During ’07 and ’08, some of the final funds associated with the P3 grant were expended on the development of a novel display technology that we termed the “Dorm Energy Orb”. The orbs are essentially colored balls encased in a bubble and mounted on the wall that glow different colors depending on how much electricity a dorm is consuming at this moment relative to what it normally consumes at this time of day. In contrast to the website and even to lobby computer displays, the energy orbs (which are currently installed in the lobbies of six Oberlin dorms and two houses) are designed to provide an ambient form of feedback; without going out of their way, students absorb basic information about resource use as they pass by. The Orb glows a bright green if the dorm is consuming less than half of its normal electricity use, it shifts through a spectrum to yellow if it is consuming at a typical rate and it shifts to a vibrant red if it is more than double its normal electricity use. Although deployed for only a little over a year, Oberlin’s energy orbs have been featured in an article in the Christian Science Monitor and recently won the “2008 Best Appliance of the Year” award from Energy Efficiency Markets (see awards and web links in Executive Summary for details).

Lucid Design Group: Development and dissemination of the technology beyond Oberlin: The creation of Lucid Design Group by four members of the P3 team in 2004 has certainly been one of the most significant outcomes of the P3 grant. Over the last four years Lucid has played a central role as a pioneer in developing products and the market for real-time resource use feedback. This important role was publically recognized in the 2007 when Lucid received the grand prize in the “Smart Power” category of the “California Clean Tech Open” (CCTO). The CCTO is the nation's preeminent clean technology business contest, often dubbed "The Academy Awards" of Cleantech. Using its “Building Dashboard®” software, Lucid has now developed data monitoring and display systems for over 160 buildings encompassing over 3 million square feet of space; 20,000 people currently live or work in Lucid monitored buildings. Lucid’s higher profile university and corporate clients include: Harvard University, Yahoo, U. Penn, UNC Chapel Hill, Emory, Stanford, UVM, and UC Berkeley. Lucid currently has seven full time employees working out of its Oakland CA office and is anticipating well over $1 million in sales for ’09 and more than double that in ’10.


Based on the results summarized above and described in greater detail in the publications, presentations and awards sections in the Executive Summary, we believe that the three Ps in the P3 awards granted to Oberlin have been successful achieved: 1) people have been engaged, educated, motivated and empowered; 2) a business has been successfully developed to disseminate the technology; 3) energy and water resources have been conserved and less pollution has entered the environment. Although EPA’s Phase II P3 award officially terminated in the fall of 2009, both the research and the business development components of the project continue to expand. In terms of business development, the conversion of Lucid Design Group from an LLC to a C-corporation in 2008 was intended to enable capitalization that will allow for even more rapid growth of the company and dissemination of the technology in the years ahead.

On the research front, in the Spring of 2008 Oberlin College partnered with Lucid Design Group, with the development firm Sustainable Community Associates and with the City of Oberlin on a proposal to the Great Lakes Protection Fund titled “Implementing Real-Time Resource Use Feedback to Motivate and Empower Conservation”. In the Fall of ’08 an award of $812,000 was received that will allow us to expand significantly on the work initiated through the P3 grant. Specifically, we are developing multi-modal and multi-scale feedback technology that will allow individual households to view, share and compare individual household resource use in the context of a real-time “bioregional dashboard” that displays total water and electricity consumption and stream water health in the entire City of Oberlin.

As implied by the grant just received and as described under the heading “Additional awards” in the Executive Summary, we were quite successful in leveraging the P3 award to obtain additional resources that were used to enhance research, technological implementation and business development.

As a final note, we are please that we were able to engage faculty and students from a wide variety of disciplines, ranging from studio art to psychology to computer science, in the development of technology that benefits the environment. The success of the project was based in large part on close collaboration and on an intense work ethic and the drive to overcome all obstacles. Collaboration was not limited to academic disciplines. Indeed it was enormously gratifying for all involved to participate in a genuinely cooperative effort that included College electricians, facilities management personnel and an electronics technician from the Physics Department, all of whom became committed to the success of the project. We proved that the whole is, indeed, sometimes greater than sum of its parts.


Brandon, G. and A. Lewis (1999). "Reducing household energy consumption: A qualitative and quantitative field study." Journal of Environmental Psychology 19(1): 75-85.

Darby, S. (2000). Making it obvious: Designing feedback into energy consumption. 2nd International Conference on Energy Efficiency in Household Appliances and Lighting, Italian Association of Energy Economists/ EC-SAVE programme.

Heede, R. and J. Swisher (2002). Oberlin: Climate neutral by 2020. Snowmass, CO, Rocky Mountain Institute.

Miller, G. T. (2004). Living in the environment. New York, Brooks/Cole-Thomson Learning.

Roberts, S. and W. Baker (2003). Towards effective energy information: improving consumer feedback on energy consumption. Bristol U.K., Centre for sustainable energy.

Wang, D., E. Arens, et al. (2003). Opportunities to save energy and improve comfort by using wireless sensor networks in buildings. International Conference for Enhanced Building Operations, Berkeley, CA.

Wilson, A. and P. Yost (2001). "Buildings and the environment: the numbers." Environmental Building News 10(5).

Supplemental Keywords:

RFA, Scientific Discipline, TREATMENT/CONTROL, Sustainable Industry/Business, Sustainable Environment, Technology, Economics, Technology for Sustainable Environment, Social Science, energy conservation, urban planning, clean technologies, consumption pathways, waste minimization, ecological design, education, rainwater harvesting, energy efficiency, resource recovery, innovative technology, monitoring resource consumption, water conservation, rainfall harvesting, environmental cost analysis, pollution prevention, environmentally conscious design

Relevant Websites:

SBIR Phase I Follow-on Project: Software Framework for Enabling Innovation in Behavior-based Energy Conservation in Commercial Buildings | Final Report
SBIR Phase II Follow-on Project: Using Software and Internet of Things Technology to Drive Behavioral Energy Savings in Commercial Buildings Using Building Orbs

P3 Phase I:

Developing and Assessing the Impact of a Socio-Technological Resource-Use Feedback System for Improving the Environmental Performance of Buildings and Institutions  | Final Report