Meet the ECE undergrad leading the Campus Energy Conservation team
“I don't personally like complaining about things if you're not going to do something about them,” says Andrea Miramontes Serrano ’24.
Within weeks of arriving on campus from her home in Madrid, Spain, Miramontes Serrano was outlining actions the university could take to reduce plastic waste in an article for The Cornell Daily Sun. The mandatory quarantine imposed by the still-growing COVID-19 pandemic in August 2020 forced Cornell Dining to make difficult choices about how take-out meals were provided to students, and the result was a lot of disposable plastic.
“Reading about the university’s Platinum STARS rating, I envisioned Cornell as highly sustainable,” Miramontes Serrano recalled, “but one of the first things I saw was the abundant waste.” She heard a lot of people complaining about it too, and writing the article, “Plastic Film and Nasty Dumps: Can Cornell Live Up to Its Reputation of Sustainability?” was one of the first ways she decided to do something.
The article caught the attention of Kimberly Anderson, Sustainability Engagement Manager for Cornell’s Campus Sustainability Office. “Several departments had been discussing waste impacts because of operational changes due to the pandemic, so her article was timely,” Anderson said. She noted that Miramontes Serrano, who was already working with Cornell Dining to implement waste-reduction solutions, was eager to partner on sustainability efforts and had ideas on how to do it. Ultimately, the Sustainability Office hired Miramontes Serrano as a Sustainability Student Engagement Coordinator in August 2021.
To create more opportunities for students to get involved in the decarbonization of Cornell, Miramontes Serrano founded the Campus Energy Conservation (CEC) team. “As part of her joint role on Engineers for a Sustainable World (ESW) and within our office, Andrea created the new CEC team where students can partner with Cornell departments like Energy & Sustainability and Environment, Health & Safety to create and implement projects aimed to reduce energy consumption on campus through structural and behavioral changes,” Anderson said.
The CEC team is working on enhancing the campus energy dashboard, the EMCS portal. The portal provides real-time building utility data for the Ithaca campus, and is used by staff, faculty, and students for a variety of academic and operational purposes. “Cornell is one of the few institutions that allows public users to visualize campus energy consumption data,” Miramontes Serrano said. “Other institutions are now using it as inspiration for their own energy modeling and research.”
The team has also submitted a proposal under a Sustainable Campus Energy Reduction Grant to retrofit spaces on campus that currently do not have centralized control systems, and whose HVAC energetic demand is particularly high, beginning with spaces in Hollister Hall. Additionally, they’re working on a new initiative focused on inventorying ultra-low freezers in campus labs, quantifying the freezers’ energy consumption, and identifying opportunities for improvement. The team found one freezer, a device from 1987 which is among the oldest on campus, consuming at least 28-35kWh per day—as much as a single-family household.
Miramontes Serrano and her team represent a growing number of students dedicated to improving Cornell’s standing as an environmentally focused institution. “Our student team increases our capacity to do living lab sustainability projects at Cornell,” Anderson said. “They help generate momentum amongst students, project teams, and student organizations to partner with our office and advance sustainable campus operations, engagement, and education at Cornell.”
Miramontes Serrano was interested in sustainable development long before coming to Cornell. “I thought that to understand energy, I would have to understand electricity,” she said. “And in order to understand electricity, I had to understand what kinds of devices and operations are involved when you work with electricity, what you can do with them, and how to build them.”
Majoring in electrical and computer engineering seemed like a perfect fit. “A big thing for me was, if I ever have an idea, I want to be able to make it happen,” Miramontes Serrano said, “I want to know how a system is made. I want to see how the sensors are installed in the walls, and what the connections are. ECE represents the fundamentals of what technology is right now.” She’s putting her enthusiasm and technical background to work conducting research on energetic self-sufficiency, microgrid applications and distributed energy resources through a Laidlaw Research Fellowship.
Asked if the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering was doing enough to incorporate sustainable energy issues into its curriculum, Miramontes Serrano took a high-level view.
“It would be appropriate for Cornell to weave more sustainable topics into all of its common classes, not just engineering,” she said, adding that facing the challenges resulting from climate change can’t be limited to a classroom project or an academic discussion.
“Oftentimes, we think of sustainability as a topic,” Miramontes Serrano said. “Whereas I personally see it as the duty that we have for those who will come afterwards.”
Top: Andrea Miramontes Serrano delivers a presentation on the campus energy dashboard, the EMCS portal. Photo provided.