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Smart Housing and the "Split Incentive"

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What makes people use less energy? For many, it’s the cost: economic, environmental or both. Costs are only made clear, though, in a monthly utility bill. And that’s something millions of Americans never see.

These are people who live in various types of housing where power is part of the rent. And this group includes the more than half a million New Yorkers that live in college residence halls. Across the U.S., student housing accommodates 13 million people for about nine months a year.

“That’s a lot of people who have access to a thermostat but never get a heating bill,” says Clarkson political science professor Stephen Bird. His work in energy policy includes in-depth research on the “split incentive” problem.

“Essentially,” he says, “it’s any situation where the benefits people receive aren’t in line with the amount of money they pay. But in this case, the students are drawing large amounts of energy which, in turn, loads the power grid and consumes natural resources expensively and inefficiently.”

The fix may be remarkably simple – and not too expensive, either.

“If we can show students how much energy they use,” Bird says, “if they see the impact of turning up the heat in winter or spending 15 minutes in the shower instead of five, we expect their behavior will change, dramatically.”

So, how can students see energy use? With a dashboard—a digital readout—showing the amount of electricity and water flowing into their living space. A panel like this requires large amounts of data from a variety of sensors—on pipes and wires—throughout the residence hall. As Woodstock Village residence halls go through extensive renovations, professors and students are now installing these sensors and other elements that are at the heart of Clarkson’s Smart Housing project.

Civil and environmental engineering professor Kerop Janoyan is helping students with the technical aspects. “Thanks to these sensors,” he says, “everyone will be able to tell at a glance how much water and electricity is being used in the residence hall. We can also measure air quality and overall environmental comfort in the building.”

Janoyan adds that this project gives Clarkson the distinction of being the first university to take an interdisciplinary look at how technology can change behavior around the daily use of water and power.

“There’s an enormous potential here to help people make more sustainable choices,” he says. “Because once you quantify energy usage, you start looking at renewable sources of energy.”

This is one reason why the project has garnered interest and support from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.

Students are also looking forward to learning how simple behavioral changes can conserve energy and the environment.

Clarkson graduate student Mark Bayer is working on installing the sensors and setting up the digital dash board that will inform residents of their utility usage. “My main interest,” he says, “is in the level of metering we’ll have in the Smart Housing units. I’d like to live in one of these units, to pinpoint my exact energy usage and then see how much less I could use.”

Bayer’s ethic is not unique. He’s part of a generation that has taken a long and in-depth look at power and its impact on the environment, politics and other social institutions. This generation knows the costs of using energy. And thanks to Clarkson’s Smart Housing project, they’re about to find out just how much energy they use.

“We’re expecting profound changes,” Bayer says. “That’s the point.”
Pat Wilbur

Clarkson PhD candidate and IBM employee Pat Wilbur, holding a piece of equipment that will measure utility use in Woodstock Village.