Sustainable Saunders Energy Challenge from Hawaiian Electric Results in UH Mānoa Savings

Marti Kerton, Department of Anthropology administrative and fiscal support specialist, holds a check from Sustainable Saunders
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Marti Kerton, Department of Anthropology administrative and fiscal support specialist, holds a check from Sustainable Saunders

BY DAVID NIXON – For the first time, a department at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa has received a financial award for reducing energy consumption.  The Sustainable Saunders Initiative has honored the Department of Anthropology on the third floor of Saunders Hall for achieving the most savings in the successful second round of the energy saving competition.


“We’re very happy to win this competition, and we’re resolved to save even more in future rounds,” said Geoffrey White, chair of the UH Mānoa Department of Anthropology.  “It means a lot to us to be earth friendly and sustainable, and the funds will go right back into supporting our students. Why waste the money on electricity when we can invest it in people?”

The Sustainable Saunders Initiative is a pilot campus sustainability effort that has been implementing energy saving measures since 2006. The current “Saunders Energy Challenge” is a competition among the seven floors of Saunders Hall.  Working with Hawaiian Electric Company and supported by the Palo Alto-based Electric Power Research Institute, Sustainable Saunders constructed a website to provide real-time and historical energy use data for each floor in the building. The website is viewable at

“We worked very effectively with the Public Policy Center at UH Mānoa to construct a useful and engaging website,” said Carlos Perez, Hawaiian Electric Company Manager for Energy Solutions.  “The university system is the second largest consumer of electricity in the islands (after the U.S. military), and we’re pleased to be able to support this worthy project. The university can be a model and motivator for action in the larger community off campus.”

Each month, over $1.5 million from students’ tuition goes to pay the UH Mānoa electricity bill, but individual departments are not billed. Electricity billing is centralized for the campus and building occupants typically can’t even obtain information about their energy consumption, much less understand whether their use is high or low.

“Like many workplaces, energy use here is an ‘all-you-can-eat’ buffet,” said David Nixon, director of the Sustainable Saunders Initiative and associate professor in the Social Science Public Policy Center. “If the electricity bills in your neighborhood or condo are pooled together, with no incentive to use energy wisely, it’s not hard to figure out that you and your neighbors will use more electricity than normal. Yet that’s the most common arrangement for workplace energy use.

“Our project allows energy users to see their energy consumption and translate their intentions for a more sustainable future into action. By pairing financial incentives with tight-knit social groups, we think we’ve constructed a win-win economic model for the campus – departments generate financial savings for the campus as a whole, and in turn the campus administration returns a portion of the savings back to departments.”

Sustainable Saunders is documenting the energy savings based on a statistical model of baseline energy use. The first round of the competition merely made the website publicly available, so faculty staff and students could monitor their energy use individually and in relation to other floors.

During the first round from August 23 to September 23, the competing floors generated 1,367 kWh in energy saving – the carbon equivalent of planting 29 trees. During the second round that recently finished, departments were offered financial incentives in proportion to their actual energy savings, with the winning floor receiving 100% of the value of their energy savings and the rest receiving 50%. Energy savings shot up an additional 65% in the second round, and the third floor received $223 – not a fortune but enough to fund a student award or provide a small student travel stipend – and all in just 30 days.

“We’re excited about the results so far, and it’s not hard to see the potential for successful energy saving competitions between buildings as well as among floors in a building,” said Nixon.  “We plan to expand across the Mānoa campus, other campuses in the system and then, why not across Honolulu and around the world? This is a project that works because it’s rooted in sound science about human behavior, financial incentives, and social reinforcements.”

Round 3 of the competition began October 24, and concludes on November 23, 2010.

For more information about the Sustainable Saunders Initiative, visit: