Powerful Education: Schools Make the Leap to Energy Efficiency

Amber Plante for Zondits, August 10, 2015. Image credit: Martin Abegglen

This time of year, thoughts are most often turned to pencils, notebooks, and fresh fall clothes – not necessarily energy efficiency. Yet educational facilities around the country are making and boasting about their environmental improvements as this year’s school buses fire up and the kids begrudgingly put their backpacks back on.

It’s not only the energy impacts that are making efficiency attractive for school officials; it’s the impact on the bottom line. Sandy Grove Middle School in Hoke County, North Carolina, was billed as the nation’s first “first net-positive energy, LEED platinum designed, leased public school” when it opened in 2013. Using solar panels, geothermal heating and cooling, an energy efficient HVAC system, and LED lighting, the school is forecast save the district $16 million over the course of its proposed 40-year lifespan. Currently, the 2,300 solar panels alone generate more power than the 76,000-square-foot school uses – a huge benefit in terms of utility buyback.

Although it is inherent that new buildings will be more efficient, retrofits to existing educational facilities can also produce dramatic environmental results. The Cornwall Central School District in Orange County, New York, recently partnered with the New York Power Authority (NYPA) to implement $5.5 million in energy upgrades that will result in $300,000 in savings per year and a reduction of 895 tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually – that’s like taking 190 cars off the road.

The Jane Vernon Elementary School in Kenosha, Wisconsin, was built in the 1950s and, as one reporter put it, was “about as energy efficient as a tent in January.” With an energy efficiency rating of 10 on a scale of 1 to 100, the facility was within the lowest 10% in the entire country – a definite failing grade. But, a 2-year, $17 million energy efficiency upgrade program is underway throughout the district to replace the uninsulated outside walls and its minimal windows with newer siding that provides up to four times the insulation and many more windows to boost the daylighting and temperature options. Already, the project has yielded a 40% reduction in energy usage.

Colorado schools are also hopping onto the energy efficiency bandwagon: The Pueblo City school district has recently begun a $10.4 million upgrade (expected to pay for itself in 20 years) to its facilities that includes boiler replacements, LED retrofits, building control systems, and even solar photovoltaic arrays on school grounds. Massachusetts is also sounding the call: The Chelmsford school district has entered the Environmental Protection Agency’s Sixth Annual ENERGY STAR Battle of the Buildings to prove its efficiency mettle. Even Ohio is standing up to naysayers: The Kettering City school district is currently experiencing a 15% higher return in energy savings – from the forecast $240,832 per year for a 10-year payback to $317,862 in the first year alone.

But, despite the benefits of embarking on such sweeping energy efficiency measures, many school districts have chosen to forgo these projects. According to a survey by Schneider Electric of higher education facilities, 59% run into bureaucratic and organizational barriers when it comes to energy improvements within their facilities, despite the staggering statistics that show that 96% of the same respondents see energy efficiency as at least somewhat important to fulfilling their school’s core mission. On a positive note, although 52% of the respondents see insufficient funding as an obstacle to their energy efficiency efforts, 71% say that their facility has an action plan in place toward energy efficiency and, of those, 94% say that these changes will be made in the next 6 years.

It’s time to educate yourself – and your children – on the ways in which your school district implements energy improvements and what you can do to help facilitate (or jump start) energy efficiency initiatives in the classroom. Consider these suggestions:

  • Research and propose online notification systems for teachers to keep parents abreast of homework assignments and what’s happening in their classrooms rather than printing multiple notices to send home.
  • Present end-of-life energy options to the PTA to get its support and help the administration adopt the practice of replacing burned-out bulbs with LEDs.
  • Get involved in the school board and regular town meetings to change policy.
  • Suggest placing paper and plastic recycling bins in classrooms to encourage students and teachers to more
  • Be proactive with your own energy efficiency initiatives. If your kids see you making it a priority at home, they’ll be more likely to make it a priority at school – and kids can make a big difference.