Rice staff, student collaboration generates $15,000 in monthly campus energy savings

Campus operations and the Ken Kennedy Institute experiment with big data in the classroom

“If you bring two different data sets together and put students in discovery mode, you may get explosive results,” said Jan Odegard, executive director of the Ken Kennedy Institute for Information Technology, referring to an experimental class at Rice that provides students with real data sets and a real-world problem. Those “explosive results” saved the university $15,000 a month.

Spearheaded by the Kennedy Institute, the class materialized in spring 2016 as MGMT/ENGI 779 Business and Urban Analytics, taught by Kamal Hamidieh, with the Administrative Center for Sustainability and Energy Management (ACSEM) as its first client.

“The idea for our involvement in the class sparked once we realized that we’re over in administration with real-world problems and students are in class learning to program, but lacking real-world problems,” said Mark Gardner, manager of energy strategy and utility program development for the ACSEM. “This class was a win-win.”

The ACSEM, a collaborative organization dedicated to providing direction to Rice for short-term management and long-term planning of energy and other natural resources, provided the class with three years’ worth of collected campus utility plant data, approximately 27 million rows of data. The class was then divided into two teams of about 10 students each and given the simple, yet vague prompt: How can Rice improve the efficiency of its utility plant equipment operations?

“We had no goal, little structure and minimal rules,” Gardner said. “We essentially asked students to find something that we didn’t even know was there, which was really foreign for them at first, but once they got it, it was exciting to them, because they could pursue the direction they wanted. When collaboration works, you tend to share information and ideas more readily.”

Just two weeks into the semester, however, the class hit a roadblock. Most of the students were not engineering majors, and it became clear to everyone that the class wouldn’t work unless they received a crash course in engineering.

That’s when Hugh Ton-That, director of plant operations, got involved. Ton-That, who is also the university engineer, taught the class mechanical engineering concepts, gave tours of Rice’s two energy plants and explained how they operate.

“Traditionally, many of Rice’s operational staff doesn’t interface with students,” Gardner said. “That’s how it’s always been. This is one example of how we’re starting to break through that. This class aimed to bridge the gap through collaboration with university staff members.”

After reviewing the data all semester, the class presented a list of recommendations and insights for better plant efficiency. Ton-That implemented the strongest method, which involved shifting the production of chilled water from Rice’s Central Plant to the more efficient South Plant. This method of operations was tested during December, January and February and resulted in savings of $15,000 each month.

“I had no idea we’d get dollar value out of this project,” Gardner said. “And it only cost us a few pizzas.”

Gardner, Ton-That and others from Facilities Engineering and Planning (FE&P) met with the class each week to answer questions and provide students with feedback.

“I was enthusiastic about having Mark embedded in the class because I felt that the process of his working with students and key stakeholders from the facilities team on this topic would foster a data-driven culture that would persist long after the semester had ended and so far, it has,” said Richard Johnson ’92, director of the ACSEM and professor in the practice of environmental studies in sociology.

While the class’ mission was purely experimental, the results surpassed all expectations for those involved.

“It was incredibly rewarding watching the students evolve from not knowing anything about the utility plant process to seeing how we operate and analyzing the data to generate completely different solutions for us,” Ton-That said.

He is looking to implement the tested result permanently, a $75,000 project that he estimates will have a payback of less than one year.

The class’ success can be attributed to the collaboration of a number of additional players, including Rice faculty Kathy Ensor and Barbara Ostdiek, FE&P’s Jason Hochstein, Carl Riedel, Elmer Whitehead, John Windham and Eric Valentine as well as contacts from Optimum Energy.

The ACSEM team looks forward to further classroom collaborations in the future.

“We always welcome the opportunity to bring students together with our data and knowledge to both help us solve the challenges we confront and to meet their learning objectives,” Johnson said.

About Kendall Schoemann

Kendall Schoemann is a staff writer in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.