To save energy at Yale, incentives do the trick

A few days ago, I walked into the Pierson College dining hall and found my friendly neighborhood Student Taskforce for Environmental Partnership (STEP) coordinator waiting for me. She told me about President Levin’s pledge to reduce residential college energy consumption this year by 15 percent below 1990 levels. As the sign next to her kindly informed me, Yale is currently 8.2 percent below those levels, an achievement, yes, but far short of the goal nonetheless.

She asked me to sign a pledge to reduce my personal energy consumption. I obliged and was rewarded with a “15 percent” pin. As more students filed into the dining hall, I noticed that almost all of them had signed the same pledge. But, I ask, did any of us know exactly what we were “pledging” to do?

At home, our parents badger us to turn out the lights, and I would imagine that most of us follow the command. Why wouldn’t we? It’s not very hard and the simple gesture will save our parents money, possibly resulting in some sort of benefit to us, like a slightly more expensive Christmas present next year. But if we save Yale that additional money by taking the dark walk across our messy common rooms, tripping and stubbing along the way, where’s our Christmas present? The primary incentive is Yale’s promise to match our reductions by purchasing renewable energy credits, a reward far too removed from our lives to reward us directly; it’s certainly not something to put under our tree.

Don’t get me wrong. We all should turn off our lights even if the benefits of doing so are not readily apparent. Understanding and managing our environmental impact is a national imperative. And indeed, Yale is not alone in its pledge: universities, companies, states and even countries have “pledged” emission reductions in one form or the other; many of these groups, like Yale, are now struggling to meet those goals. Yale’s example provides insight into the problems these groups face, and could provide an example of a better way forward.

Resolving the disconnect between contribution and reward is an important start. According to STEP coordinator Rebecca Summer ’10 student rooms account for around 50 percent of residential college energy use. While progress has been made, she feels that without some kind of incentive simply asking students to help isn’t enough.

Incentives used to be immediate. Our parent’s environmentalism of the 1970s involved air too dirty to breathe and water too dirty to drink; their incentives were all around them. Today’s problems are more distant. We’re worried about minute temperature increases, positive feedback mechanisms and crises on a planetary scale. How can we truly make a difference? Would we even know if we were?

The answer, of course, is no and this is where Yale is struggling to meet its goals. Sure, Yale performed much needed changes on the power plant, retrofitted windows with weather stripping, lowered the temperature threshold at which automatic heating begins for all colleges and installed motion sensor lights (and now motion sensor vending machines). They created the STEP organization and the Yale Office of Sustainability. But that was the easy part. The whopping 8.2 percent decrease was also the low hanging fruit, by far the easiest to attain; we cannot and will not be truly satisfied until we’ve picked all the fruit off the tree, even those at the very top. Yale simply cannot do this without us.

But who’s failing whom? The answer is that we are failing Yale because they have not made it clear how we can succeed. offers statistics on how the improvements in energy efficiency are made by residential colleges. But these numbers don’t reflect our contribution. Rather, it is the conservation that Yale has purchased (the low-hanging fruit). Changing these so-called “report cards” to reflect conservation that is within our reach allows us to measure our own impact. Information on how to conserve is readily available on the Yale Energy Web site, and little things like turning off lights and unplugging electronics when you’re not using them actually make a difference.

And if Yale is going to challenge us to truly participate in this energy initiative, they should reward us if we meet the challenge. A barrage of positive statistics and charts of our progress don’t exactly get anyone excited about conservation. Giving colleges that conserve extra study breaks or a special party would be more analogous to that extra nice Christmas presents we hope to receive from our parents. If Yale really challenges us, we must be prepared to answer and together reach for the fruit at the top of the tree, and maybe find a little Christmas present underneath.

Will Kletter is a sophomore in Pierson College.