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Clarkson students win sustainable campus contest

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POTSDAM — Clarkson University could save up to $600,000 yearly on its energy bills by installing motion sensor-controlled lighting in its residence halls.

That was the conclusion a group of students reached after conducting award-winning research that began because of Clarkson’s continuing effort to make its campus more sustainable.

“If you want to take a look at what you can do for sustainability, you have to understand what you spend on electricity and what you can do to reduce use,” according to Jeannie Piekarz, a student who helped conduct the research. “Hitting people in the wallet is going to have the biggest impact. Sustainability is as much about cutting costs as it is saving the environment.”

The students were singled out by the New York State Pollution Prevention Initiative, a creation of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s energy efficiency policies, in a contest among teams from partner universities throughout the state.

“Our tag line is to bring sustainability into everything we do at Clarkson,” said Susan E. Powers, associate director for sustainability. “This project is a great illustration that sustainability is being brought into areas on campus.”

The idea for the research came from a brainstorming session among the school’s Eta Kappa Nu chapter, an engineering honors society.

“Clarkson recently instated a sustainability fund and was looking for proposals to use $25,000 worth of money,” Ms. Piekarz said. “I brought it into our meeting and I said we should do this, so we started to bounce around ideas.”

The group installed motion sensor lighting on one of the school’s older residence halls, then used a meter to check the difference in energy used.

“Clarkson uses $4.6 million a year on utilities,” Ms. Piekarz said, and “$920,000 to $1.84 million of that is spent on lighting. We had an electrician measure the in-the-hall energy, and we extrapolated the potential total savings from there.”

Typically, hallway lights remain on constantly in older buildings. The motion sensors doused hall lights whenever no one was walking.

Ms. Powers said Clarkson will consider implementing the students’ ideas.

“We don’t know yet because these results are brand new. This project was just finished. We will be summarizing all these projects soon and presenting them to the facilities people,” she said. “With so much savings, it is difficult to look the other way.”

The research was funded by the Pollution Prevention Initiative and the university.

Ms. Powers said the new lighting system was well-received by students living on the floors.

“They also did a survey of the students who live on the floor, who say if anything, they want the lights off even more,” she said. “There were no complaints. They also think that when the lights come on, they can go off even faster so we can save even more electricity.”

Ms. Piekarz said the research continues.

“We’re talking about research that is somewhat done, but still a work in progress,” she said.

The director of the Pollution Prevention Initiative, Anahita A. Williamson, said the students’ work stood out because of the estimated savings and the ease of implementation.

“They had to meet the metrics the judges were scoring them on,” she said. “Is it innovative? Is it implementable? Did they quantify the amount of reductions? Theirs came out on top.”

The contest was designed to impart the importance of creative thinking and promote sustainable living, Ms. Williamson said.

“The students are the next generation of professionals. The more they can get involved in understanding their environment, the better,” she said. “They learn that going green costs more green is not true. If you can understand where your opportunities are, you can apply that not only to your campus but to your business and your building. There’s going to be more and more demand for this.”

She said plans are in the works for a similar competition next year with a broader field of participating universities.

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