One UCSC student’s project will save energy in campus apartments
“The Boardwalk’s going to be gone,” says Jennifer Helfrich, a freshly graduated UC Santa Cruz environmental studies student. “It’ll be underwater.”
While she isn’t talking about tomorrow, next year, or even this lifetime, studies do predict that sea levels will have dramatically risen by the end of the century.
“Climate change is happening,” she continues. “A lot of people are going to die and a lot of people are going to be hurt. There’s probably going to be some violence over it, and ecosystems are going to change. A lot of species are going to die but new species will evolve and some will move around. The environment will be fine; it always has been. It changes. The question is whether humans will be OK.”
And in light of environmental tragedies that continue to culminate in rapid succession, the general mood does indeed appear to be a pessimistic one. But Helfrich is refreshingly devoid of defeated cynicism. Instead, as a student at UCSC, she worked with the campus Sustainability Office to help mitigate the effects of the seemingly inevitable doomsday. In her senior year, she founded the Climate Outreach, Organizing and Leadership (COOL) Campaign, which works with the school’s little-known Climate Action Plan (CAP) on reducing carbon emissions.
Instead of purchasing renewable energy certificates to offset carbon emissions, her campaign aims to hold the administration to its commitments by designing renewable energy projects on campus, which she believes will also be engaging for the UCSC community.
For many, post-graduation plans include anything from tackling student loans and saddled anxiety to travel plans abroad. Helfrich, however, has continued plans with her alma mater. This summer, she will be working on a project designed to lower energy consumption in campus apartments by using dashboard technology designed by Lucid Technology. Working with a team of campus electricians and UCSC’s Information Technology Services (ITS), Helfrich will install wireless energy meters into campus apartments in Kresge, Porter, Cowell, and Stevenson colleges. The energy meters will audit energy consumption in the apartments and translate the amount of energy consumed into tangible terms, such as pounds of coal required to produce the energy. The information will be mounted on display screens in the dining halls, and the colleges will be engaged in a competition to be the most energy efficient.
Studies have shown that just by having access to that information, individuals can reduce their energy usage by 30 percent. On an institutional level, the savings could be exponential, and Helfrich believes that, in a few years’ time, the technology will pay for itself.
And while the technology will keep students informed on their energy consumption, it will be Helfrich’s job to actually foster the behavioral changes. Over the summer she will be designing workshops and producing brochures that give specific steps for reducing energy. “If we all put a little bit of effort in, then it wouldn’t be a problem,” she says. These small steps include using energy-efficient light bulbs and power strips, which she plans to sell during move-in day.
Helfrich believes that the project itself is a sustainable one. In developing and encouraging awareness and energy-efficient habits, she foresees students continuing to seamlessly incorporate them into their lives outside of school competitions.
“When I first got to college, I didn’t know I could do stuff like this,” she says, remembering her own beginnings as a sustainability advocate. “I didn’t think I could have. I started volunteering for the Sustainability Office my sophomore year and I picked it up. That’s how the world is run. People just do it. You have to start somewhere.”
While most Santa Cruz lives currently remain unmarred by oil spills and other natural disasters, Helfrich urges that it won’t always be this way. Ignorance, purposefully inflicted or not, can be a comfortable safety blanket, but it’s a temporary one. “I think that we’ll survive it,” she poses. “Crises are what usually turn us around. And that’ll be the turning point. We’ll finally figure out that we can’t live limitless lives.”
Photo: Cool Campaign founder Jennifer Helfrich (right) with intern Darlene Khalafi do outreach at UCSC’s Campus Earth Summit, hosted by the Student Environmental Center.