Emerging Technology

Energy Wise

Technology-assisted energy management programs offer significant cost savings for school districts. Student-based energy management programs that rely on real-time energy tracking suggest even greater benefits.

All of us believe that the operations divisions in school districts should increase the efficiency of their work and redirect the savings into additional funding for instruction. Many school districts have well-established energy conservation programs, and most facility administrators acknowledge there are still unrealized savings due in large part to occupant behavior. Getting everyone to participate in energy-saving initiatives presents a challenge. Staff and students are encouraged to turn off lights, close doors and windows, and unplug unused equipment. Still, the level of cooperation will typically increase or decrease based upon the commitment of district and building leadership.

A singular focus on cost effectiveness misses an important opportunity to save additional money on energy, and also to include a division of the district that is typically in a supporting role in the day-to-day education of children. Kenton County School District in Kentucky actively engages students and staff through the use of technology and “interval” metering as a key component of their highly successful energy conservation program. It has created an effective bridge between operations and education.

Student-based energy teams aren’t new to Kenton County. Their Energy Wise program, which is responsible for significant avoided utility costs, began in 2007. Students and their advisors were given direct access to the district’s energy cost tracking system, which relies on the processing of each school’s monthly utility bills. Students participated in a variety of activities surrounding energy conservation and monitored their school’s progress by evaluating the billing records. Although effective, the lag time between student-led conservation efforts and the measurement of actual results was typically two months or longer. In order for students to truly understand the impact of various energy conservation measures, they needed to see the results as quickly as possible.

With assistance from Duke Energy, Kenton County converted the primary electrical meters at each school to interval meters that provide energy use information every 15 minutes. New Energy Technologies, a company from Grand Junction, Colo., converts that information into an online database and generates user-specified reports. Students, assisted by their teacher advisors, are able to download reports for specific time periods. For example, they monitored energy use for a particular weekend when a student-planned shutdown occurred comparing the kilowatts actually used in the school during that weekend to the energy usage during other weekends. If the students have implemented reductions or eliminated a specific use of energy within the facility, they are able to see the results within a few days, and sometimes even within hours, instead of waiting for months for the billing records. It is the availability of current data that has made a significant difference in turning lukewarm participation to active engagement in the energy saving program.

There are other applications for utilizing real-time metering. Short-term savings data may also be available for water, natural gas and fuel oil usage. Gas, water and fuel oil suppliers could be interested in participation as well. Green buildings have long used data from gray water retrieval and active and passive solar installations to demonstrate the effectiveness of those solutions. And while in some cases that data is in summary and not daily form, combining these with an energy awareness program like Kenton County’s would create a powerful set of tools for instruction. Several nationally based programs including Energy Star and the National Energy Education Development project (NEED) are working directly with school districts to encourage and reward energy education efforts, particularly with real-time monitoring.

With an increased focus nationwide on project-based learning and student entrepreneurship, access to real-time utility savings data presents a compelling case for including an energy saving program into the instructional curriculum. Programs like Energy Wise in the Kenton County Schools have not only demonstrated that substantial additional savings are possible, but also that building operation divisions can collaborate with educators to deliver unusual and exciting instructional experiences. We want to hear more about the operational support divisions collaborating with the instructional divisions to develop unique opportunities for your students. Email one or both of us and tell us your stories.

This article originally appeared in the July 2013 issue of School Planning & Management.

About the Authors

Andrew LaRowe is president of EduCon Educational Consulting located in Winston Salem, N.C.

Mike Raible is founder and CEO of The School Solutions Group in Charlotte, N.C., and the author of "Every Child, Every Day: Achieving Zero Dropouts Through Performance-Based Education"

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