Second “Bulbs” contest to pit dorm against dorm

By Kate Shepherd

Last Friday night, students in the Snell House lounge strained their eyes while playing a game of chess in the dark to reduce their dorm’s energy use. They eventually turned on the lights so they could see the board—but their sacrifice reflects the spirit of the Battle of the Bulbs competition.

The Green Campus Initiative (GCI), a student environmental awareness group, kicked off its second annual Battle of the Bulbs energy-reduction competition last Thursday. The month-long contest encourages students to reduce their energy use during February by using an organic-food study break as the incentive for the winning dorm.

High participation rates in last year’s competition and positive feedback from students and housing staff convinced the GCI to repeat the event this year, according to GCI co-chair Liz Selbst. The contest won the most original event RSO award last year.

Selbst said that the U of C’s strong house system lends itself to the Battle of the Bulbs.

“We were hoping that the competitive fires usually stoked by I.M. games and IHC events like the Quiz Bowl could be complemented by a recurring and friendly competition that encouraged students to think about the broader environmental implications of their daily activities,” Selbst said in an e-mail interview.

She said the idea of an energy-reduction competition was first inspired by similar annual “Green Cup” competitions at Harvard and Yale.

Housing residents saved enough energy during last year’s battle to power a single light bulb for 957,483 hours, but GCI organizers hope more energy will be saved this year, Selbst said.

“Of course, last year was our first time staging the battle, so naturally not everything we tried was a slam-dunk. A few weeks last year Pierce actually experienced slight increases in electricity consumption, which was obviously disappointing,” Selbst said. “We’re trying very hard to use what we learned from last year’s Battle to make this year’s competition as successful as possible.”

The goal for the first week is to reduce energy consumption by five percent, and the percentage goal will double each successive week, according to fourth-year Lee Walsh, the data committee chair for the Battle of the Bulbs. The overall goal is to reduce consumption during the month of February by 14 percent.

This year’s competition will use a different baseline for comparison, he said. Last year’s battle compared energy use only with data from February 2006. However, this year, the GCI will compare the February energy usage with the average energy use in February 2007, 2006, 2005, and 2003. Data from 2004 were not included in the baseline average because it was a leap year. This year is also a leap year, but that will not affect the contest because data are only being collected for 28 days.

“The decreased baseline will continually raise the bar in a natural progression toward lower energy use,” he said in an e-mail interview.

Thomas Kelly-Kemple, the R.A. of Chamberlin House in Burton-Judson—last year’s winning dorm—said one of his house’s key strategies is to turn off lights that no one is using.

“This may seem like a no-brainer, but we have people to go around looking in open doors, and if the person isn’t in the room, the light goes off,” he said in an e-mail interview.

The spirit of competition has encouraged some students to sacrifice personal hygiene for environmentalism. Selbst said she has overheard students debating how few loads of laundry they could do during the competition, but she cautioned students against resorting to such extreme measures.

She said students could reduce consumption by unplugging devices that sap power when not in use, like stereos, chargers, and televisions.

“We’re not advocating doing your homework by candlelight or never watching TV. We’re just asking that people start to think about the broader environmental effects of their actions,” she said. “Turning off the lights or your computer when you leave the room are easy habits to adopt for the rest of your life.”