Trust Technology To Solve Our Energy Conservation Problems, Do You? Consider Minnechaug Regional High School…

 Minnechaug Regional High School near Springfield, Massachusetts, installed a state of the art  lighting system when it was built over a decade ago. The system was supposed to save money and energy. But on August 24, 2021, the software that ran the system broke down. Minnechaug is the only high school in its district and serves 1,200 students from the towns of Wilbraham and Hampden. The environmentally-conscious school board insisted on a “green lighting system” run on software installed by a company called 5th Light. It would automatically adjusting the lighting, saving electricity, money, and Boston from being under water.

But in August 2021, something went wrong, and the lighting system went into default. The default setting is “lights on.” The school tried to contact  Reflex Lighting only to discover that the company had been sold and resold several times since the high school was built. The current management of Reflex Lighting had a hard time locating anyone familiar with the high school’s lighting system. Many of the parts necessary for repairs had to be sent from China.

The consequence has been that the lights at the school have been blazing day and night to this day. That’s 18 months.

“We are very much aware this is costing taxpayers a significant amount of money,” Aaron Osborne, the assistant superintendent of finance at the Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District. “And we have been doing everything we can to get this problem solved.”

Technology is far more complicated and subject to unexpected chaotic results than society’s leaders, managers and policy makers understand. This wasn’t an escaped T-Rex or SkyNet taking over the world, but the problem is the same: lazy assumptions about technology and insufficient attention to the danger of allowing cool tech to exceed the ability of human beings to operate it competently.

16 thoughts on “Trust Technology To Solve Our Energy Conservation Problems, Do You? Consider Minnechaug Regional High School…

  1. “The consequence has been that the lights at the school have been blazing day and night to this day. That’s 18 months.”

    What a shame the school system doesn’t have a maintenance person who can throw a circuit breaker or two to shut off the lights at nights and on weekends until the problem is resolved. The lighting system has to get its electrical power from somewhere.

    • In an academic world shutting off power is only theoretically possible. The academics would not possibly know how to implement this theoretical possibility and those without degrees could not possibly know more than them.

    • According to the article, they did that for the exterior lights. The interior lights are presumably on the same circuit breaker as other things they don’t want to shut off, like security systems and fire alarms.

      That said, whoever approved and whoever implemented this setup made exactly the same mistakes as the PlayPumps people: Not only did they not have a robust maintenance plan, but they removed the manual control systems that were already there. It’s great to have lights that are controlled via software, but it doesn’t cost anything to route them through the standard analog light switches for when the software or any of the electronic components fails.

      I’m all in favor of technology. What I’m worried about are the idiot human designers failing to follow the basic principle of preparation. What are the processes to maintain, repair, modify, or replace the system? What happens when any part of the system fails? These are basic questions, and people need to be responsible for coming up with good answers to them.

      • I wonder if the lights are of the type that needs to warm up and slowly illuminate over time, unlike incandescent bulbs. That would limit throwing the breaker, risking blowing out tge bulbs.


        • Those old school florescent bulbs would not be dimmable (to allow automatic adjustment of light levels). I would have to presume they are LED, which would suffer no adverse effects of manually switching on and off. Every school I ever worked in had a motion sensor linked to a manual switch mechanism. I can see no reason this automatic system would not have a similar setup. The switches could even have guards to discourage use while system were active (but not unduly burden manual use during malfunctions).

  2. This reminds of a certain college in NJ. The student center roof was covered with solar panels. A sign in front of the building showed a picture of them. They were were very proud that the panels supplied 14 % of the buildings power.
    Simple math would tell you that in order to supply 100 % of the power via solar, they would need 7 more solar arrays on 7 fields, each the size of the student center. Where are they getting the land for this?

  3. I have opinions about letting all this “technology” take over. I spent a couple of hours today playing with the latest poster boy for “AI”, ChatGPT. I’ll have a more detailed post at the next Open Forum, but for now I can summarize it with “It’s an amazing system for generating bullshit.”

    • I recently watched a YouTube video posted by Rick Beato (a 60-year old American musician and music producer) where he reviewed a similar “AI” software product designed to generate music lyrics. You simply enter the musician’s name and the theme; then the “AI” writes a song in the artist’s style.

      He typed in Ed Sheerin and relationship break-up. The software accessed all of Ed’s previous content and influences, and in about 30-seconds spit out a “Sheerin” song.

      His overall critique of the song was that it was simplistic rubbish, but admitted that the software might still have some impact, being that today’s audiences appears to enjoy bullshit music.

      I look forward to your Friday’s comment.

      • Rick Beato has a wonderful YouTube site. He approaches music from a fan perspective first, then overlays his experiences as a producer, engineer, session player and certified punk rocker, along with be a card-carrying member of the Rushinati – he continually declares his adoration for the Canadian Triumvirate. He has great interviews, too. Recently he talked to Tim Henson from Polyphia about AI. Henson, being a younger fellow with incredible guitar chops, talked about using AI as a tool in his arsenal. Interesting take, watching Beato and Henson agree philosophically but disagree practically.


  4. I’m not sure what here is surprising. Technology is constantly evolving, but people do not want to pay for the updates necessary to keep a particular piece of technology up to date with that evolution. If some party orders a piece of software/hardware, they pay for the development of the software/hardware. All good. Fast forward a decade, and the entire technology ecosystem has completely changed. The current operating systems in use are probably 2-3 generations ahead, the driver software is no telling how many updates later, and the programming languages in common use are probably changed. The hardware in common use is probably faster, more robust and totally different than what people were using a decade ago. Unless you paid to have someone keep the original piece of software/hardware up to date, its OLD. Maybe some old guy in the basement still knows how it works….but he probably retired. You could pay him gobs of money to come out of retirement and fix it (if the old dude is still alive and kicking it), or you could pay a modern IT person to learn the old stuff, but it would probably be cheaper to replace it entirely.

    Everyone wants the latest thing, and most systems either get replaced every few years or they stop being supported. That is just how it is. Until the pace of change slows down, old stuff is old. Unless you pay to keep it maintained, it won’t get maintained. Paying to keep something maintained is expensive, so most people won’t do it. Then they act shocked that no one can fix it. Pull out a laptop that is over a decade old and see how well it still works. If you can even get it to turn on, you will probably be shocked at how little RAM it has and how slow the CPU is. Modern software is developed to run on modern computers with the increased RAM and speed, so most of it won’t work on your old computer. The old software probably won’t work either because the companies that made it are gone or have newer versions they want you to buy and they have discontinued support for the old stuff.

    Technological obsolescence is just a fact. Plan your budgets accordingly. Doing otherwise is unethical and stupid. The costs of technology don’t end at initial development. Pay for maintenance or don’t expect it to get maintained.

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