On some of the hottest days of the summer, the Brandeis community is asked to join a campus-wide effort to reduce energy consumption called “Turn It Off days.” This program aims to both reduce carbon emissions and save the University money on its electrical bill.

Turn It Off days are announced through emails to the University community and signs posted by custodial staff around campus. On these days, people on campus are encouraged to save energy by turning off lights, unplugging unnecessary electronics, closing windows, lowering window shades and accepting slightly warmer building temperatures, per Turn It Off day emails. Associate Vice President of Facilities Robert Avalle and Sustainability Programs Manager Mary Fischer explained in a joint interview with the Justice that these actions reduce building temperatures, saving money and energy on air conditioning. 

In the utilities industry, the actions taken on Turn It Off days are known as “demand response,” a common way to reduce energy consumption on the days that the most energy is consumed. These peak demand days — usually the hottest days of summer — play an important role in calculating how much the University pays for its energy throughout the year,  according to Avalle. 

“Electrical grid providers have to have the capacity to meet peak demands in their areas. … If those providers and grid operators can keep that peak low, then that means that they have to build fewer power plants to meet that peak demand.”

Building new power plants is expensive for providers, he explained, so it is in providers’ best interest to encourage customers to decrease their peak demand. Providers supply incentive for making this change monetarily: Part of the University’s electric bill is based on how much energy is consumed on the peak day the previous year, so the lower the University can get its consumption on that specific day, the cheaper the next year’s electricity will be. “[It’s] a few hours of discomfort for a lot of dollars in savings,” Fischer said.

Thus, the University finds itself playing a kind of guessing game, Fischer and Avalle explained. When a particularly hot day is forecasted, Campus Operations works with an energy consultant to decide if they should institute a Turn It Off day, with as many as five or six such days occurring each year. At the end of the year, they explained, the University’s energy provider, Eversource, reports which day during the year was the peak demand day for the New England grid. The University’s goal is to have implemented a Turn It Off day on what turns out to be the region’s peak day, setting itself up for a lower electric bill.

However, more often than not, the success of a Turn It Off day is determined by the temperament of New England’s unpredictable weather. Last year, the University did not institute a Turn It Off day on what turned out to be the peak demand day, according to Fischer and Avalle. The day came early in the summer, on June 13, according to a data spreadsheet given to the Justice by Fischer.

“Pretty much everyone missed it,” Avalle said of the 2017 peak day. He explained that while the day was forecasted to be warm, a Turn It Off day was not instituted because historical patterns suggested there would be higher temperatures in the middle of the summer. Instead, “the rest of the summer was really cool.”

The timing of this year’s peak demand day presented a different challenge. Peak demand days normally occur between Spring and Fall semesters; from 2009 to 2018, six of the 10 peak demand days happened in July. Yet this year’s peak demand day (assuming no hotter day occurs later in the year) was Aug. 29, the first day of classes Fall semester. As the two explained, there were around 6,000 additional people on campus than there would have been if the peak day had occurred before classes started.

Compared to 2017’s peak energy use of slightly less than 6.5 megawatts, 2018’s peak was about 7 megawatts, reflecting the impact of the increased campus population. Nevertheless, this is still about half a megawatt lower than the University’s normal peak energy use consumption before the Turn It Off program started in 2015. This decrease demonstrates the impact of the program, even when it occurs when campus is full, what Fischer called the “worst case scenario.”

The University has a set protocol for Turn It Off days that focuses on warming buildings slightly, from a normal summer range of 74-76 degrees to a range of 76-78 or 79 degrees, according to Avalle. Air conditioning is not turned off, but turned down in residential, assembly and classroom spaces. Significantly, scientific research areas are not affected by Turn It Off protocols. This temperature change only occurs in the afternoon, when energy consumption peaks in New England, he explained.

This protocol does not control the energy consumed by lights or wall outlets, so Avalle and Fischer stressed the importance of individuals taking personal steps to reduce energy usage, such as turning off lights and lowering window shades. According to Fischer, keeping window shades down is one of the most important things community members can do, as it keeps the sun from warming buildings throughout the day. The custodial staff also helps by closing open windows and doors and lowering shades.

Avalle and Fischer emphasized the importance of individual actions. Avalle likened it to voting, in which many feel that their individual vote does not matter. But “if 6000 people vote, that really does matter. So we’re asking people to … vote for sustainability” by working together as a campus to reduce energy usage, he said.

Fischer also described the “real time” nature of energy use and conservation, explaining that energy has to be produced at the time it is consumed, rather than being stored and used later. On peak demand days, cleaner sources of energy are often entirely in use, forcing energy providers to resort to “dirtier” energy sources, like oil, to meet the demand for electricity. Reducing energy consumption on these days helps curb the harmful emissions released from these other energy sources.

The first Turn It Off day occurred in July 2015, per a digital letter from then-interim president Lisa Lynch. Fischer explained that this program, along with her hiring as Sustainability Manager and a task force’s rewriting the University Climate Action Plan, represented a “recommitment” to sustainability at Brandeis.