Editorial: Rethink the Conservation Cup February 28, 2011 8 Comments Share tweet Editorial Board By: Editorial Board On Feb. 14, Stanford’s Green Living Council (GLC) began its fourth annual Conservation Cup, which will run through March 15. The goal of the Conservation Cup is, according to the GLC website, “to use teamwork and the competitive spirit to promote sustainable behaviors while engaging the campus community in a fun event.” This is clearly a laudable goal, but there is little evidence that the Conservation Cup as it is currently structured is an effective way to achieve it. The Conservation Cup works by comparing dorms’ electricity and water use during the contest period to fall quarter averages, and rewarding dorms showing reductions of 10 to 20 percent. Reductions of 10 percent earn all of a dorm’s students free metal water bottles, and reductions of 20 percent earn all of a dorm’s students free tickets to the California Academy of Sciences (CAS). Last year, Hammarskjold and 717 Dolores achieved 20 percent reductions while six other residences crossed the 10-percent threshold. If the Conservation Cup really reduces energy and water use by 10 to 20 percent in so many dorms, than that is truly an impressive achievement. However, there is another less favorable interpretation of the results. Dorm electricity and water use can vary by more than 10 percent month-to-month during other times of the year, so reductions of 10 percent during the competition period might have nothing (or very little) to do with adoption of better conservation practices. Given the limited awareness of the Conservation Cup within the student body, random variance seems like the most probable source of the observed reductions. Since small residences tend to have higher variability in their electricity and water use, results arising from statistical variation should heavily bias the competition in favor of small residences. Last year, all seven of the eight winners were either row houses or lake houses, and the other was Marx House in Suites. The winner, Hammarskjold, houses only 26 students. This is a strong indication that the results of the Conservation Cup are largely spurious. An alternative interpretation is that smaller dorms can more easily coordinate Conservation Cup activities and motivate residents. However, at least anecdotally, it does not seem that many Resident Assistants or 10 to 20 percent of row house residents take the Conservation Cup seriously. The GLC needs to make sure that it is rewarding environmentally conscious students, not handing out free goodies to students living in houses with greater energy use variance. Another problem with the Conservation Cup is the menu of prizes it uses as incentives. Hundreds of students received steel water bottles after last year’s competition for 10 percent energy and water use reductions. This might seem like a “green” gesture, but according to The New York Times, each recipient would have to save at least 500 plastic cups by using his or her water bottle to prevent the bottle from becoming a net contributor of toxic pollution to the ecosystem. Considering the fact that most Stanford students either own reusable water bottles already or can access them in dining areas, this is a wasteful prize unbecoming of the GLC’s mission. The prize for 20 percent energy and water use reductions is a trip to the CAS in San Francisco. Getting dozens of students to San Francisco and back almost certainly negates most or all of the energy savings resulting from the competition. The GLC needs to consider ways to motivate more students and better direct its nearly $10,000 of students’ special fees money towards energy conservation. With the money it will spend on water bottles, CAS tickets and publicity for the Conservation Cup, the GLC could outfit hundreds of hallways and rooms with motion sensors that ensure lights are off when they are not needed. This kind of investment would decrease energy use significantly, demonstrably and permanently, rather than slightly, unconvincingly and temporarily. The GLC must continue to pursue its noble mission of promoting sustainable behavior at Stanford, but it must also evaluate its work with a more critical eye to ensure that its efforts (and students’ money) are being directed towards successful projects. The Conservation Cup should only see a fifth iteration if it can justify its existence on statistical and environmental merits. If it can, it should be improved; if it cannot, it should be replaced. conservation cup Green Living Council special fees 2011-02-28 Editorial Board February 28, 2011 8 Comments Share tweet Subscribe Click here to subscribe to our daily newsletter of top headlines.