April 26, 2011

New Technology Enhances ‘Lights Off’ Project

Print More

Jolyon Bloomfield ’12, along with other interested students, gathered volunteers and began Lights Off Cornell by flipping switches in Rockefeller Hall and Baker Lab.In spring 2010, Lights Off became an official component of Cornell’s Climate Action Plan. One year later, the group was officially recognized as a student organization.Lights Off Cornell is managed by eight students, but has about 160 volunteers in addition to staff and facilities managers. The program seeks to involve a variety of students at Cornell.“Pitching Lights Off as an activity to students majoring in natural resources is much different than pitching Lights Off to sorority chapters. With one group we emphasize the environmental benefits, and with the other we emphasize community service hours. To other students we might emphasize the opportunity to meet someone new. By employing tailored marketing we hope to attract as diverse a group of volunteers as possible,” president Natalie Zandt ’11 said.The process is relatively simple –– participants create an account and sign up for times that fit into their schedule. Volunteers have the option to work with a partner and are equipped with a map of all of the light switches they have been assigned to shut off. Originally volunteers would keep track of their progress on a worksheet, marking “off,” “already off,” or “in use,” for each light switch. Later, this information would be transcribed to the Lights Off database online.This somewhat tedious process, however, is becoming less so with the help of Cornell students and the computer science department. In fall 2010, students enrolled in Computer Science 5150: Software Engineering chose the Lights Off web application as their final class project. Led by project manager Alex Visbal ’11, the students designed a user-friendly smartphone application.The Lights Off application allows volunteers to bypass transferring information from paper to the web. With the smartphone application, participants can record the status of each lightswitch electronically. This electronic data automatically collects in the Lights Off online database. Recording the status of each light switch is now a simpler, one-step process.“The smartphone application has made it more convenient for volunteers, and reduces paper use, so it is even more environmentally friendly,” said Lights Off Cornell member Claire Maloney ’11.Easy scheduling via the Lights Off website (now on the Cornell server), a social networking platform and this new smartphone application, are examples of Lights Off’s efforts to harness the benefits of technology to increase sustainability.In addition to technological advances, Lights Off has expanded the number of buildings involved in the program. Volunteers are now flicking switches in seven buildings: Baker Lab, Rockefeller Hall, Phillips Hall, Hollister Hall, Goldwin Smith Hall, Martha Van Rensselaer Hall and Wilson Lab.Adding buildings to the Lights Off program involves a series of steps, the first of which is contacting a facilities manager and having them approve such involvement. After gaining approval, Zandt and other leaders of Lights Off obtain simplified floor plans of the building and label the location of every light switch. Then they calculate the amount of energy each light bulb uses to determine how much energy can be saved.The Wilson Lab is the most recent addition to the Lights Off program. For five weeks, staff have been flipping switches in the main areas of the lab and have saved an estimated 400 kg of carbon dioxide. Jim Sexton, facilities manager of Wilson Lab, was approached by Zandt during a tour of the lab. After discussing the Lights Off program with Zandt, Sexton decided to become a part of the energy conservation effort.“[Lights Off Cornell] is great because so much environmental stuff is so large scale and you feel overwhelmed about it… [individuals] can turn off lights that they leave on, every little change makes a difference” Sexton commented.Wilson Lab is a nationally funded scientific lab with large industrial areas equipped with huge overhead lights. The ‘switches’ for these lights are on circuit breakers, tucked away in remote locations. These hidden breaker boxes create safety concerns for those responsible for flipping the switches. Lights Off Cornell and Jim Sexton worked together to create a plan for the construction of central light switches (rather than breaker boxes) in easy-to-find locations, allowing for the lights in the industrial labs to be turned off by Lights Off volunteers.“The Wilson Lab is an unusual situation; Lights Off Cornell inspired me to make [energy conservation] changes” Sexton said.  In May, these wiring changes will be implemented.Lights Off has saved an estimated $2,500 and reduced 13 tons of carbon emissions since September 2010, but, as Zandt pointed out, “in the grand scheme of Cornell’s carbon footprint, [the amount of energy saved] doesn’t make a dent.”“I think [Lights Off Cornell] is a great program to get the word out about energy conservation. In terms of a bottom line of Cornell’s energy use, it may not have a huge impact now, but I think that there is the possibility for it to expand in the future,” said Mark Howe, an engineer at Cornell’s Utilities Energy Management department.Lights Off Cornell finds success not in the amount of money and carbon emissions saved, but in their volunteers. “[Lights Off] success’ is more symbolic of engagement; our biggest success is the impact we have on our volunteers,” Zandt said. “Our volunteers might think about their own habits at home.”

Original Author: Paige Roosa