Reducing Energy Consumption, Neighborhood by Neighborhood

Neighborhood2By Matt Baker

Chicago has put a number of programs into place to challenge residents to reduce their utility consumption. It started with the Green Office Challenge, pitting commercial office spaces against each other to lower energy, materials and water consumption. Retrofit Chicago is a similar program on a larger scale, with entire buildings in competition.

The latest program aims to go even bigger, with neighborhood competing against neighborhood. The Chicago Neighborhood Energy Challenge is a six-month pilot competition among multi-unit buildings in Humboldt Park and Logan Square that will encourage residents to reduce energy usage.

magazine“It’s designed similarly to the Green Office Challenge in that it’s fun and gamified to encourage neighbor to neighbor, peer to peer opportunities to talk to each other and learn from each other,” said Vanessa Roanhorse a Project Manager at Delta Institute. Delta is working with the City of Chicago to lead the monthly resident trainings and activities.

Other partner organizations include the Hispanic Housing Development Corporation, an affordable housing nonprofit, who will host the competition in seven of its multifamily and senior living buildings. Enterprise Community Partners will oversee the day-to-day competition management and Clique Studios is creating a competition website where residents will be able to track their energy usage. There they can compare how their efforts measure against past usage as well as other residents. Once the pilot program is complete, the University of Chicago will conduct data analysis and evaluate the efficacy of the competition.

The program launched on November 1 and will run until end of April, with a celebration in May for all the competitors. The pilot competition aims to shave 5%-10% off of electricity, gas and water use. Residents will learn techniques to reduce consumption and through simple behavior modification, realize lower utility bills.

“What’s interesting is the fact that it’s really resident-led,” said Kate Yager, the Deputy Chief of Policy in the Mayor’s Office. The program is designed to train a number of “green leaders” who then disseminate information to and help manage the direct, day-to-day contact with the residents themselves.

More than $40,000 in prizes will be awarded in addition to monthly incentives such as Divvy bike rentals and museums passes for individual participants. The building that saves the most electric, gas and water will win a $25,000 grand prize, to be reinvested into the property at the residents’ and management’s discretion. There will also be a second prize of $7,500, with third prize receiving $3,500.

Neighborhood1“The hope is that through this pilot, we’ll be able to identify actual things that have results, that show reductions,” said Roanhorse. “But also, we’re really looking to see if this is the type of thing that resonates with residents in Chicago.” Every month, energy use will be tracked to see what kind of progress the residents are making. But another measurement is how many of them are participating and how engaged they are.

The seven properties are home to approximately 750 residents across more than 500 units. Every participant received a workbook, containing activities geared toward mitigation of energy use. The monthly seminars help to educate the residents on these topics as well as others, such as the benefits of using green cleaning products or engaging in non-driving transportation tactics.

“We want this to be a resident-driven program,” said Roanhorse. “They know how to use energy and they know their buildings and properties ten times better than we ever will.” While many of the residents are already very creative with energy management, Roanhorse said, there are others who never gave it much thought. She hopes the program is particularly effective with this latter group. “The big picture is, if any of these types of behaviors take root and become part of their lifestyle,” she said, “that to me is the biggest success story.”

The lessons learned during the pilot competition will be used to inform the launch of future neighborhood challenges and energy efficiency contests in Chicago. “We want to take what we learn from this and expand it to other neighborhood challenges across the city or potentially to a city-wide challenge,” said Yager.

The program will also look at energy data over the previous year, to gauge the progress that participants make during the challenge. In addition, data usage for the year following the end of the program will evaluate whether or not the effects of the behavior modifications persist beyond the competition framework.

While residents are the engine running the program, building owners have a stake in the completion as well. Four of the properties are large enough that they will be required to track their energy use starting in 2016 and disclose that information in 2017, under the city’s new energy benchmarking ordinance.

There is an eternal debate about which is more effective, mandated actions such as the benchmarking ordinance, or opt-in campaigns such as the Chicago Neighborhood Energy Challenge. “I think you need a balance among all of these efforts,” said Yager. “Legislation serves its purpose, but these types of competitions are how you directly engage with actual residents and business owners.”

According to Roanhorse, outreach challenges such as this one and legislation simply have different approaches to providing education and empowerment. “It’s really about buy-in, what’s interesting to you as a user, how much control and input you want as a user, and then making it fun and community-driven,” she said. “That is where challenges can be really effective. It’s really about you deciding how much time you want to put into it.”

Photos courtesy Jeff Molitor, Clique Studios

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