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Hanley Sustainability Institute

Energy education is powerful information for University of Dayton students

By Sophia Palmer

Note: Sophia Palmer (far right in photo of an Energy Chat above) is a Hanley Sustainability Institute student leader.

When I opened my first electric and gas bills, I was alarmed to see how much my roommates and I pay for utilities. Had we really used that much energy? What is the difference between the delivery total and the supply total? What is a kilowatt-hour?

I learned how to analyze an energy bill in an engineering class, so I eventually was able to recall what different categories meant, but I realized I am in the minority of students at the University of Dayton who have that experience.

What is even more shocking to me is most of my peers, who live in campus housing where the university pays their bills, do not see their energy usage due to confidentiality agreements between the utility providers and the university.

Throughout their years at UD, many students have no idea how much energy they use or how much that energy might cost. In fact, most students have an indifferent attitude towards their energy usage. They may assume that since they never see the bill, they are not paying for their energy usage and use as much energy as they would like. This disconnect is due to a lack of energy literacy.

As defined by the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, energy literacy is the “understanding of the nature and role of energy in the world and daily lives accompanied by the ability to apply this understanding to answer questions and solve problems.”
Students may not understand why the amount of energy they use matters if they do not understand the energy source.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, American citizens do not have much knowledge about how to conserve energy or why they should do so. Energy literacy includes three components.

First, people must understand the scientific concepts behind energy generation and distribution. Second, people must understand the environmental impacts associated with energy production. After grasping the first two concepts, a person can finally understand how their energy use contributes to the overall impact of climate change.

Energy education should not just be telling students to turn off lights when they leave a room or turn down the thermostat in the winter. For students to implement energy-saving habits into their daily lives, they need to have a personal connection to how their energy consumption has an impact on the bigger system.

For universities that have made a commitment to reducing their carbon emissions, changing students’ opinions and behaviors around energy consumption is imperative.

We are living in a time of climate crisis. Universities across the country have committed to net zero emissions within the next 20-30 years. The University of Dayton has signed the “We are Still In” pledge after the United States withdrew themselves from the Paris Climate Agreement in 2017. By making this statement, UD committed to combating the climate crisis of which energy consumption is a crucial factor.

Currently, most of the power in the United States comes from burning fossil fuels. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, 76 percent of human-related, greenhouse gas emissions come from releasing carbon dioxide when burning fossil fuels. The electric power sector is responsible for 28 percent of those greenhouse gas emissions alone. Therefore, the university should be conscious of where its energy is coming from and how that energy is being used.

UD has started to take an administrative, top-down approach to reducing its carbon footprint. UD divested from fossil fuels, installed solar panels on campus, and is constantly taking actions to make campus buildings more energy efficient.
However, only a few people are making these key decisions about energy consumption and efficiency. The majority of faculty and students do not know that these changes are being made or why such changes are important. If the university wants to decrease its energy usage through behavioral changes, energy education programs are crucial to make a collective impact.

UD professor Kevin Hallinan, his grad students, Facilities Management, Residential Life and HSI’s campus energy team all worked toward the Energy GPA and Energy Chat programs to empower students to better understand their energy usage. The Energy GPA program awards students a letter grade that reflects their monthly energy usage as a replacement for their energy bill.

The Energy Chat program seeks conversations with students about energy-saving practices within their residences and different energy options within Ohio to show students the power they have as energy consumers.

While both programs are in their pilot phase, it is the campus energy team’s hope that in a couple of years, every student graduating from the UD will understand how their energy usage has an impact.

For example, one kilowatt-hour produces about a pound CO2. Therefore, if 400 houses in the student neighborhood were able to save one kilowatt-hour per day, they could collectively save 144,000 pounds per year of CO2 from entering the atmosphere. If students took energy-saving habits with them after they left college, this number would grow.

While it is important for everyone to be energy literate, energy disparity is greater among low-income communities, especially in the city of Dayton. According to the U.S.  Dept. of Energy, the energy burden is three times more costly for low-income households than for non-low-income households.

People who are defined as low-income must allocate a higher percentage of their income to utilities, and many people live in older, less efficient homes which also increases their energy bills. Energy efficiency projects to improve homes can be costly, and renters might not be able to implement larger energy efficiency projects without the approval of their landlord.

Dayton organizations such as Community Action Partnership (CAP) and Clean Energy 4 All are working to empower low-income residents with energy education programs. As a university for the common good, it is important that the University of Dayton recognizes the energy disparity in our greater community.

In his encyclical Laudato Si, Pope Francis said, “A true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”

To stand strong in its mission and values on sustainability, UD must further commit to educating both its students and the greater community on energy. In its sustainability policy, the university states that it wants to encourage a sustainable community for students, faculty, and city residents.

Through university and city programs such as CAP, Energy GPA, Clean Energy 4 All, and Energy Chats, students and community members can be empowered through energy literacy.

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