CalPlug Challenge Impresses at Conference

By Anna Lynn Spitzer

Irvine, CA, Sept.19, 2014 -- A team from the CalPlug Center at Calit2 presented one of its flagship projects last month at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy’s Summer Study conference in Pacific Grove, Calif

From left: Mendoza, Valdez and Zhang, after their presentation. The Kilowatt Hour Challenge elicited lots of interest from the audience.

Led by Arthur Zhang, CalPlug technology director, the team included recent UCI graduate Marta Mendoza and fourth-year undergraduate Melissa Valdez. They presented “1kWh Challenge: An Experiential Learning Program Designed to Promote Energy Efficient Behavior,” a game-based approach to educating consumers about energy usage associated with day-to-day consumer electronics, appliances and devices.

Their presentation “really woke people up,” Zhang says. “We were quite different from most of the other research topics, as we are more interactive and fun!”

The 1kWh Challenge is an outreach effort begun by the research team three years ago. It puts participants through four entertaining tasks that consume electricity in an effort to help them learn key terms and concepts. Students play air pong, in which a hair dryer floats a ping pong ball while they attempt to swat it into a cup; play an Xbox Kinect game in an attempt to complete two levels; bake muffins in a mini-kitchen; and watch a movie while popping popcorn.  All four tasks must be completed with just one kilowatt hour of energy. To date, more than 200 people from 15 different countries have taken the challenge.

The 1kWh Challenge, set up in the CalPlug Center at Calit2, includes air pong (left) and an XBox Kinect Game.

Before beginning the “fun” part of the challenge, participants – which included UCI students as well as K-12 students from local schools – filled out a questionnaire to determine their level of understanding about energy terms and concepts.  Afterward, they were given the same questionnaire. Ninety-eight percent of them indicated that they had learned at least one new concept on energy efficiency.

Additionally, while only 20 percent of the students were aware of the definition and usage of the term “1 kilowatt hour” before the challenge, 96 percent of them understood it afterward and were able to relate it to at least one appliance in terms of usage, Zhang says.

Zhang says the key to the project’s success is its hands-on approach. “There are a lot of one-way educational attempts: ‘here are the facts, look at cool pictures and walk away. But this kind of participation simulates how they would use the devices but in a fun way, with a twist. They make the connections with similar types of devices, and they correlate with their daily uses very quickly.”

Participants also bake in the mini-kitchen (left) and watch a movie while making popcorn.

The CalPlug team is now working on the next generation of the game, a take-away kit that will encourage participants to set up the air pong challenge at home, videotape themselves and upload their effort while challenging others to participate. Zhang hopes the new version, which they call “Kilowatt Challenge 2.0,” will have the same appeal as the recent ALS “Ice Bucket Challenge.”

“We want them to be aware of the energy, the unit and the cost associated with it,” Zhang says. “It’s a process.  I’m not saying anyone who participates in this challenge will immediately have a 10 percent energy reduction. But if this can translate into knowledge … if they remember how this unit that they’ve played with converts to their hair drying time, that can guild their actions right away.”

The presentation and discussion of the project’s next phase attracted a lot of interest at the ACEEE conference. “A lot of companies actually came up to us and wanted to know when the 2.0 version would be available,” Zhang says. “They think this is a great tool to help them do internal programs to get their employees to understand more about energy efficiency.”