Class Project Puts University of Virginia Students in National Finals of ‘Ecomagination Challenge’

Jan. 29, 2007 — A project designed by two first-year students at the University of Virginia to improve the energy efficiency of Randall Hall by retrofitting the building’s lighting has been selected as one of 10 finalists in the national Ecomagination Challenge, sponsored by mtvU and General Electric.

Rachel Baker of Katonah, N.Y., and Ian Dominguez from Houston, Tex., originally created the project as part of the University Seminar, “Designing a Sustainable Future,” taught last fall by Paxton Marshall, professor of electrical and computer engineering and associate dean for undergraduate programs in the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

The project by Baker and Dominguez was selected from among more than 100 entries from colleges and universities around the country. Finalists were judged in three areas: ecology, imagination and economics.

The winning project will be selected by a combination of votes on the Challenge Web site and input from mtvU and GE.

“I think what was most interesting about our project was that it shows how even fairly small changes can save literally tons of CO2 emissions each year,” Dominguez said.

Working with Paul Crumpler, energy program manager in U.Va.’s Facilities Management department, Dominguez and Baker chose to focus on Randall Hall because of its inefficient methods of lighting. The building, which is more than 100 years old and houses the history department, was not designed for energy efficiency.

Their project proposes replacing all current fixtures, ballasts and bulbs with T5HO fluorescent fixtures, removing half of the existing hallway lamps, installing motion detectors in offices and halls to keep lights off when unneeded, and replacing incandescent bulbs in exit signs with LEDs.

“It's a very, very simple strategy,” Baker said. “But it demonstrates dramatically that a whole chain of events occurs when you flip a light switch.”

The project would cost a total of $14,850 and would result in savings of $1,718 per year, according to Baker and Dominguez. They also estimate that the retrofitting would decrease CO2 emissions from the coal used to create the electricity by more than 19 tons a year.

“Clearly it is critical that we design new buildings to be energy efficient, but we can also cover our tracks by making these old buildings more efficient, too,” Baker said. “Even if we don't win the competition, Paul Crumpler has indicated that the plan we've recommended for Randall Hall will be implemented.”

According to Marshall, other projects in the seminar dealt with recycling on Grounds; increasing the selection of local, organic and vegetarian food provided by dining services; and energy used by the University in buildings and transportation as well as diabetes screening and treatment in medically under-served areas of Southwest Virginia and remediation of a polluted pond in one student's hometown.

“Not all of the projects were appropriate for the challenge, but about five teams submitted,” Marshall said. “The students did an outstanding job of designing detailed plans for local contributions to solving global problems.  A number of them are moving forward to implement their designs.”

The winning project in the Ecomagination Challenge will receive a $25,000 grant and will be featured on mtvU and In addition, the winner’s school will host an Earth Day Conference with a performance by Angels and Airwaves.

Other colleges and universities with projects in the final 10 are Connecticut College, MIT, Northeastern, the University of Maryland, the University of Massachusetts, the University of Michigan, the University of Southern California, the University of Wisconsin-Stout and Vanderbilt.