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Business of school lighting

Schools get smart about controlling costs and energy usage
At Bee Cave Elementary School, students gather around the teacher for story time in one small space, allowing the school to save energy and money in areas of the room that don’t need lighting.
At Bee Cave Elementary School in Texas, students gather around the teacher for story time in one small space, allowing the school to save energy and money in areas of the room that don’t need lighting.

When Superintendent Bryan Caples considered a few years ago increasing the energy efficiency of his schools in the Palermo Union School District in northern California to save money, “the first thing I thought of was to upgrade the air conditioning,” he says.

But an energy audit found the district would reap the biggest savings by upgrading its predominantly fluorescent lighting to light-emitting diodes (LEDs). That relatively simple step was going to “get us more bang for the buck,” says Caples.

Caples’ assumption is typical. Lighting is often the overlooked energy hog in the room—accounting for 26 percent of the energy used in a typical school, according to a report by the Department of Energy’s Energy Star Program. Retrofitting lighting can reduce that by as much as 50 percent, the report notes.

What’s more, upgrading lighting systems is often simpler and less expensive than upgrading HVAC systems, producing a quick return on investment.

Recognizing this, district leaders have gotten smarter about lighting. Some have replaced old fluorescent lights with new, more energy-efficient fluorescents. Others have installed LEDs. Although still more expensive than traditional lighting, LED prices have dropped. An LED that cost $50 just a few years ago now costs less than $10.

And LEDs use 80 to 85 percent less electricity than traditional lighting and last much longer than traditional bulbs, according to Consumer Reports. The most common use of LEDs is in areas with particularly high lighting costs, such as parking lots, auditoriums and gymnasiums. But schools are starting to install LEDs in classrooms as well.

In fact, LEDs make lighting systems smarter. “With LEDs, it’s not just about the lights, but also about control,” says Matt DeLoge, director of engineering at Johnson Controls Lighting Services, which does a third of its lighting retrofit business in the K12 market.

Because LEDs are essentially computer chips, they can be integrated into the school’s computer network and governed by energy management software. Control can also be through various sensor-based wireless connections. For example, a motion sensor detects when someone enters the room and automatically turns on the light.

Three recent projects provide an overview of how schools are updating their lighting.

Mingus Union High School

According to the Energy Star report, upgrading older T12 fluorescent lights to more energy-efficient T8 fluorescent lamps with electronic ballasts can reduce lighting energy consumption by 35 percent. So that’s what Mingus Union High School in Arizona did.

As part of a larger, $1.1 million program that included replacing the HVAC and installing an energy-management system, the school upgraded all indoor lights and added motion detectors so lights turn off when rooms empty, Superintendent Paul Tighe says. The district also upgraded exterior and auditorium lighting with LEDs.

The upgrade entailed no direct expense. Tighe took advantage of a Qualified Zone Academy Bond, which enabled the school to use a performance contract by which the contractor guaranteed the resulting energy savings would cover the cost.

The lighting upgrades saved the school more than $26,000 in 2014. The savings came not only from increased energy efficiency but also lower operational costs.

“We haven’t replaced any lightbulbs in two years,” says Tighe. “I used to have a person working one day a week just changing lightbulbs. Now that person can do other things.”

Palermo Union School District

Palermo USD upgraded lighting in partnership with Pacific Gas & Electric, local energy consultant Richard Heath & Associates and the California Conservation Corps, a state-funded program designed to put young adults to work on the environment.

While the energy consultant managed the project, the Conservation Corps performed the energy audit and installed more than 4,000 interior and 50 exterior LEDs in all five schools in the district, says Superintendent Caples.

Palermo officials received $500,000 in funding through Proposition 39 (formally known as the California Clean Energy Jobs Act), passed by California voters in 2012. According to a recent state report, 57 percent of Proposition 39 projects involve lighting and lighting controls.

The district’s energy audit listed projects that would produce the biggest savings. “Upgrading the lighting was No. 1 by far,” says Caples. So the school spent its first $100,000 exclusively on that. The other important items on the list included HVAC and solar energy.

PG&E participates in similar programs in five other northern California districts, says Terri Meyer, a customer relationship manager at the utility. The savings can be dramatic and payback can occur in less than two years—particularly when the new lights qualify for rebates offered by PG&E and other utilities. “With HVACs you get a payback but it takes a lot longer because they are so expensive,” Meyer says.

At one Palermo school, Helen M. Wilcox Elementary, replacing interior T12 fluorescents and parking lot lights cost just over $10,000. But PG&E provided more than $6,000 in rebates and the upgrade is expected to save about $9,000 annually in energy costs, Meyer says. And because installation costs were covered by the state-funded Conservation Corps, the payback period is less than a year—which is particularly fast, says Meyer.

Bee Cave Elementary

Johnny Hill used to be skeptical of LEDs. “I thought they were way too expensive and unreliable,” says the assistant superintendent for business, financial and auxiliary services at Lake Travis ISD near Austin, Texas. But Hill got excited after his staff studied recent improvements and realized that a local LED manufacturer, Pruf Energy Solutions, willing to help with a pilot program this fall.

The district spent $229,000 to invest in LED lighting for Bee Cave Elementary, using money from a 2011 bond program, Hill says.

In an effort to monitor and reduce energy usage, the school is participating in Pruf’s proprietary controls system pilot project, and have installed the system in nine classrooms and some of the central offices. All of Bee Cave’s interior fluorescent and exterior lighting was replaced with LEDs.

For those specific classrooms and offices, Pruf provides a smart badge to control the lights, which turns lights on and off wirelessly when teachers enter or exit a room and can also be programmed to automatically adjust brightness. For example, during kindergarten story time, full-room lighting is unnecessary because children will be gathered in just one part of the room. So the lighting could dim or turn off entirely, except in the area where the teacher needs it.

“With LEDs, you can make lighting more efficient by matching it to the behavior and needs of the teachers and students,” says Hill. He projects Bee Cave will reduce utility costs by 50 percent by converting to LEDs.  If the program works well, he plans to use the controls system in more classrooms and to upgrade the district’s eight other schools.

As these examples show, upgrading lights can be a smart step toward reducing energy costs. More schools are likely to embrace LED as prices drop, and could ultimately tie lighting into smart integrated energy management systems that include heating, air conditioning, and even security and video monitoring equipment.

Tam Harbert is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.