Powering Down

Energy costs loom large in school district budgets, comprising the second biggest operational expense after personnel. Energy is a vital input in managing school buildings and optimizing the learning environment for students. Ensuring that lighting, indoor air quality and other needs are well provided for is essential. However, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 25 percent of energy use in schools is wasted, and significant opportunities exist to reduce energy costs. A focus for astute administrators, then, is tapping these opportunities to save energy, thereby freeing up funding for educational resources that would otherwise be lost on utility bills.

Three Complimentary Avenues lead to Energy savings in Schools:

  1. Raising awareness among faculty, staff and students
  2. Managing school building operations
  3. Upgrading mechanical equipment and controls

The first two avenues are behaviorbased, work synergistically with each other and can be implemented without capital investment. The first avenue is focused on shifting behavior among all building occupants, while the second is concerned more specifically with shifting awareness among facilities and custodial staff who manage building operations. A third important avenue, if funding is available, is an investment in upgrading the efficiency of equipment and controls.

Behavior-based strategies offer a rewarding pathway for energy conservation in K-12 schools. These strategies are both accessible and relatively inexpensive for schools to implement, and yet they are capable of yielding significant results. A key focus is on raising awareness among faculty, staff and students about energy-saving opportunities. A simple and powerful example of an intervention is ensuring that lights get turned off in unoccupied classrooms and offices, since lighting alone can account for 25 percent or more of all electricity consumed in a school.

Many additional strategies are detailed in the Toolkit included in the Powering Down report. The efficacy of a behavior-based approach can be further enhanced when custodial staff members are actively included in fostering a culture of energy conservation. If empowered to do so, custodial staff can offer critical insights about ways to lower a building’s energy footprint through effectively managing building operations.

Electricity is often a major focus of behavior-based strategies because the draw for lighting and plug load equipment can readily be reduced through choices made by faculty and staff end users. Turning off lights when unneeded, turning off equipment when not in use and reducing standby power are accessible measures that can produce significant savings. As an initiative gains momentum and awareness builds, members of the school community can identify additional opportunities for reductions in both natural gas and electricity. Cost savings are further enhanced as the school minimizes wear and tear on equipment through reduced run time and as it decreases the building’s cooling load as equipment and lights are powered down.

Upgrading mechanical equipment and controls offers another important avenue for improving energy efficiency in a school building. Typically, however, these mechanical upgrades require substantial capital investment that poses a far steeper challenge for school districts than initiating a behavior-based program. Potentially, savings generated through a behaviorbased program can subsequently be invested in funding mechanical efficiency upgrades, providing one option for financing these projects.

Learning and Leadership Opportunities for Students

Student participation in an energy conservation initiative can yield many positive outcomes for students. The experience offers rich opportunities for student learning through engagement with the design and operation of the school building. David Orr speaks to this when he writes, “Buildings have their own hidden curriculum that teaches as effectively as any course taught in them.” In a recent study published in the Journal of Environmental Education, researchers describe a “synergistic relationship” between enhanced student learning and an energy conservation focus. In addition, students gain leadership skills and a valuable sense of efficacy as they make significant contributions in shifting school culture toward a higher level of sustainability.

This article is an excerpt from the publication “Powering Down”, a study of student engagement and energy program success. To read more about the importance of student engagement in successful school energy campaigns read “Powering Down”, The Center for Green Schools.

This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of School Planning & Management.

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