When other competitors in the Spring Power Down Challenge at Washington and Lee University started to gain on the Sigma Nu fraternity, members turned to drastic measures by opting to live in the dark.
No wisecracks, please. It worked.
Sigma Nu won a close victory with a 26 percent reduction in energy use over runner-up Gilliam Residence Hall, which racked up an impressive 24 percent reduction. Kappa Alpha fraternity won third place with a reduction of 21 percent.
The Power Down Challenge was the creation of W&L's Energy Education Program and aimed to engage students in conserving energy in creative ways. It lasted for one week in May, and every building that participated was measured against its own previous electrical use through utility meters.
According to Carl (Alex) Retzloff, a sophomore and Sigma Nu house manager and assistant treasurer, support for the challenge was lackluster at first, with some members thinking it a pointless exercise. But once the numbers started rolling in via Twitter feeds from W&L's Energy Education Specialists Jane Stewart and Morris Trimmer, and members could see how much they had decreased their power consumption, everyone started to pitch in, trying to cut a greater percentage of power each day.
They turned off all the lights during the day, and at night when everyone was asleep. They turned off air conditioners and fans and turned their computers off when not in use. When the competition heated up and that was no longer enough, members encouraged their chef to limit her power consumption as best she could, cutting off the exhaust fan at the end of the day and turning off lights in the kitchen when she was out running errands, Finally, they just lived in the dark, prompting some members to compare it to reenacting the Blitz.
All the campus housing took part in the challenge, from dormitories and theme houses to fraternities and sororities. The Lee House, home to President Kenneth P. Ruscio and his family, also joined the competition, although the timing was unfortunate for them, since the first two days of the competition coincided with the many events they hosted during alumni weekend. "The Ruscios didn't win, but they were enthusiastic and are eager to be role models on how to conserve electricity," said Energy Education Specialist Stewart.
Stewart noted that many buildings made a concerted effort to reduce energy consumption, and that while lights in dormitories are usually left on during the day, they were quickly extinguished for the competition.
Another change Stewart noticed was that fraternity house porch lights were not constantly burning. "During challenge week, the problem of porch lights being left on was almost completely gone, which was fantastic," said Stewart. "It showed that people who weren't doing particularly well in the competition were still paying attention to things that they usually don't notice."
Stewart and Trimmer posted daily updates on their Energy Education website of how each of the competitors was faring, and broadcast the results on monitors in W&L's Elrod Commons. And as a result of their first foray into connecting with students via Twitter, their small number of followers doubled during challenge week. "It was a fun way to interact with the students," said Stewart, "and it seemed like people were waiting for the daily results and re-tweeting them."
The prize for winning the Spring Power Down Challenge was an ice cream sundae party at Lee House, hosted by President and Mrs. Ruscio and sponsored by the Office of Student Affairs, which Stewart credited for its support and for promoting the competition among students.
"Everyone in the Sigma Nu fraternity was extremely excited and proud to have won," said Retzloff. "And they were astounded when they realized how much they had cut energy consumption. I think it was both a rewarding and enlightening—no pun intended—experience for everyone.
"Now, having won, we are ready for next year and hope to shatter this year's record by hitting that sacred 30 percent reduction mark."
In the meantime, Retzloff expects students at Sigma Nu to continue to limit power consumption, albeit by a smaller percentage. He recalled that one of the fraternity members commented to him that before the Power Down Challenge, he never bothered to turn off lights in his room or in common areas when they were not occupied, but that now he can't help but turn everything off. "It's crazy," he told Retzloff, "I just can't stop myself."
The Washington and Lee Energy Education Program is an energy management and conservation initiative that works to change the personal behavior, institutional habits and collective culture at W&L to significantly reduce the amount of energy consumed on campus. Further information can be found at the department's website.