Anyone who doubts that adjusting thermostats or turning off computers can make much of a dent in utility bills should have a chat with administrators of the Council Rock School District in Bucks County, Pa. In the past four years, thanks to comprehensive policies and procedures, CRSD has cut energy usage by nearly 50 percent and achieved more than $9 million in total savings. The 12,000- student district has been honored for its practices with federal EPA-sponsored Energy Star awards three years in a row.
Such accolades are a point of pride for Superintendent Mark Klein and the man he calls his "energy management guru," Director of Facilities Tom Schneider. Both administrators stress, however, that CRSD's success has been possible because board members, staffers, students and parents have embraced the same idea—that small actions, taken collectively, can yield huge changes.
A major turning point for the district was the 2005 release of a statewide benchmarking study of school facilities and costs. The report revealed CRSD was spending substantially more on energy per square foot of building space than most other districts in the state. Students weren't suffering from lack of resources in this affluent bedroom community for workers in Philadelphia and New York. But the superintendent and his then business administrator, Robert Schoch (who is no longer with the district), knew that an aggressive energy plan could help conserve funds for ongoing needs such as school renovations.
The first win for Klein and Schoch was getting the school board to endorse a partnership with Aramark Education, a company that provides various support services to more than 500 U.S. schools. CRSD contracted with Aramark to provide an energy management consultant on campus for five years (full-time for three; half-time thereafter) who has helped with everything from master planning to ensuring that equipment operates efficiently in all 16 buildings.
"We looked at what we could control right away," Klein says. "Could the board set policy on what temperatures would be during the summer and winter times? We did a lot of work on setbacks on nights, holidays, weekends. We did a lot of work around retro-commissioning, making sure that all the systems were working right."
"We spent about $150,000 initially districtwide for improvements in our control system," Schneider adds. "For example, we can do shutdowns and turn things on remotely in all of our buildings. It took a lot of time and effort by my maintenance staff. I had some opposition when we were adjusting temperatures, but once people started to realize that it was a board policy, then everything started to smooth out."
Schneider increased the district's savings this year by buying electricity and natural gas on the open market for the first time, rather than from local utility companies. "It's more complicated," he says. "You are basically buying commodities and locking in at different rates."
Schneider wants other school district administrators to realize that energy management doesn't have to cost anything. "You just have to get staff and students enthused about shutting off lights, keeping doors shut during air-conditioning times, and doing the simple things," he says. He seems genuinely tickled by the rivalries he has seen among schoolchildren and teachers in CRSD as they vie to save the most energy, employing concepts such as "Teach in the Dark Day" when ambient sunlight is plentiful.
"From the school district's initial conversations about savings and sustainability have come kids and teachers who have moved it into educational realms," Klein concludes. "Teachers talk about switching from an incandescent to a fluorescent bulb. Students have created brownout initiatives in schools. We have a committee of kids called the Green Team at our high schools that have talked about car drop-offs, and how long parents should idle. So much of this has become culture for us, not dollars."
Mary Johnson Patt is a freelance writer in northern California.