Students become ‘energy detectives’, helping to solve the mysteries of energy management.

Over the next five years, Otago Polytechnic will take a million-dollar chunk out of its energy bill.

It's aiming for a 30 per cent reduction, made through a series of energy management measures applied over the next 18 months.

It's doing so with the help and support of students, co-opted as energy detectives to help in a "search and destroy" initiative to identify wastage and prevent it.

The Otago Polytechnic initiative is being run by Neville Auton, an energy consultant for the tertiary education provider, and driven from the top by the Polytechnic's council and CEO Phil Ker.


Auton's is a big task. The Polytechnic has 7000 students and more than 700 staff over three campuses. They have seen real progress already. Three years ago they changed the heating boilers from coal to wood chips, which is not only carbon-neutral but significantly improves local air quality.

With the heating system already streamlined and decarbonised, and the fuel bill reasonably low, Auton has turned his attention to electricity use. His approach is highly technical, beginning with a five-month audit of energy use to understand where and how energy is being used.

Metering systems will ensure each building and every light, computer, heater and electrically powered device or appliance inside will be monitored for energy use.
"It's a night-time audit so, for those five months from 3pm-11pm, we'll be finding out what's on, why is it on, should it be switched off? If not, why not? We're basically setting up an electronic library of the equipment involved with the energy use.

"It also includes the heating system, the building management system and control equipment - all the building's infrastructure - and the data network. This will allow us to enhance control of the system to get the most out of our energy use.

The programme, known as systems optimisation, was made possible through support from the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA).

Neville Auton. Photo / Otago Polytechnic.
Neville Auton. Photo / Otago Polytechnic.

It doubles as a practical educational opportunity for Polytechnic students who have had a hand in helping to design the system: "Sustainability is built into everything students study here so, when they're finished their courses, they can be sustainability practitioners in their field," says Auton.

Auton refers to the students as energy detectives who are employing a search and destroy programme. They were initially called on to help separate out the electricity metering of the Otago campus.

"Basically we had one meter for the entire campus so we had no idea into which building the electricity was going, or how much. So I designed 11 low-cost, WiFi-enabled electricity meters and we had some students do the programming for them, and we had sub-meters around the buildings.


"Then we built 12 heat meters, which measure the hot water flows into each of the buildings."

It was on the basis of this information that the Polytechnic made a second business case for further investment in energy efficiency.

EECA has a long-term partnership with Otago Polytechnic to try to achieve the goal, supporting a monitoring programme to identify low-cost savings and an optimisation initiative to improve the running of existing energy systems.

It is one of a growing number of education facilities - including seven universities - partnering with EECA to focus on energy management.

The programmes help to cut energy bills and carbon footprints and free up savings that can be re-invested in core services; plus improving a building's lighting, heating and cooling creates a healthier and more comfortable environment for students and teachers.

The learnings from the Otago Polytechnic energy management journey will not remain a secret nor will be locked away in a hard drive.

Auton intends to produce case studies on different areas of achievement, made public for those who want to follow suit. Already he has made presentations on their sub-metering system, and the Polytechnic's 'internet of things' - the WiFi-connected energy use monitoring system in action on the campus.

Paul Bull, EECA business account director south, is delighted with the progress made at Otago Polytechnic, and says most organisations will find they have what he calls 'low-hanging fruit' opportunities.

"Those are the things an organisation can do to have an immediate or very short payback time. The challenge most of them have is putting some priority to that. So our programme helps get some focus and attention on those projects and helps get them implemented."

Bull says businesses looking to explore energy management and reduction opportunities can start with the free Energy Management Journey Tool on the EECA website. Businesses can plug in their company's energy use information and have their results compared to the average industry use - specific to their industry.

"Any size organisation can use it," explains Bull. "They input the energy use information from their business and the results show them exactly where energy is being used on their site, helps them map out efficiency opportunities and how they might go about implementing them."

The EECA website includes many free tools and templates: "If you wanted to write an energy policy, or an energy management plan, there are templates there to get you started."

From there Bull recommends companies explore the EECA website for possible partnership and funding opportunities for businesses keen to take action. Financial support can be made available for energy audits, design advice, building performance, systems optimisation and monitoring and targeting, among other categories.

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