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Creative Ways of Reducing Energy Costs

Read the energy-saving initiatives that districts have implemented.

Hiring an energy manager

“We are definitely seeing the position of district energy manager or energy-efficiency coordinator becoming more common,” reports Ron Blagus, energy market director at Honeywell. “Having a dedicated individual to track utilities, report progress, promote and follow up on energy-saving strategies is essential to success,” says Connie Coriell, energy-efficiency coordinator for the Bridgewater-Raritan (N.J.) Regional School District, who oversaw the district’s 2007 energy-efficiency initiative, which reduced energy use by 10 percent, saving over $300,000 in its first year alone and earning Energy Star certification from the EPA.

Evaluating your district’s energy use

The EPA’s Energy Star program offers a free software application called Portfolio Manager to help districts carefully benchmark their energy use, and a number of corporations and some state departments of energy will conduct energy audits, the cost of which can often be offset by grant funding. A 2004 audit by Honeywell in the Moriarty- Edgewood (N.M.) School District, for example, uncovered an $18,000 billing discrepancy caused by a broken electric meter. Some schools have even recruited students; eighth-graders in the Monarch K8 School in the Boulder Valley (Colo.) School District have been examining their school’s energy use as part of their earth science curriculum for each of the past five years. The students’ 2009 report estimated a potential savings of $4,000 in their school and $250,000 across the district in electric bills alone if their recommended efficiency measures were undertaken.

Centralizing facility automation systems

Heating, cooling and lighting together account for nearly 70 percent of energy use in schools, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. In addition to keeping filters clean and equipment in good condition, companies such as Honeywell, Cisco and Trane will consolidate scattered HVAC, lighting and electricity controls into a single location or a control software program. At Memorial Elementary in the Brunswick City (Ohio) School District, Trane implemented a centralized building automation system last year, enabling administrators to monitor and control energy use, including climate settings, lighting, and power schedules via a single software program accessible online. The school now uses 23 percent less energy than the average school building and was awarded Energy Star certification in April.

Upgrading lighting

Lighting accounts for some 26 percent of the electric bill in the average school, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Lighting upgrades can make a significant difference: The Oregon Department of Energy estimates that replacing older T12 fluorescent lights—typically installed in the 1950s and 1960s—with today’s smaller, more efficient T8 fluorescents will reduce electricity usage by between 17 and 48 percent. The Wilton (Conn.) Public Schools hired Alliance Energy Solutions to install high efficiency fluorescent lighting in its buildings in 2007 with funding from the Connecticut Energy Efficiency Fund and now saves $88,000 annually in electric bills.

Automating computer power

Running a single computer continuously for one year can cost $125 in electricity, according to a recent study by the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Environmental Center. Managing the power use of all district computers can be simplified by any of a variety of large-scale energy management software programs, including Faronics’ Power Save, Dragon Systems’ Power Manager, Apple’s Remote Desktop or Lightspeed Systems’ Power Manager, which enable a single user to program energy-saving settings or schedule the powering-off times of an unlimited number of computers in a network. Many districts have also made use of wind and solar power to reduce their energy costs.

Installing solar panels

Installing solar panels can reduce overall energy costs, particularly if the upfront costs are offset by additional funding, from grants or loans available from the federal or state governments or local power companies, or from the large amount of funding available as part of the federal stimulus package. Puget Sound (Wash.) Energy, for example, just awarded $26,700 grants to four Washington schools in April for purchasing and installing solar panels, and also provided monitoring software and classroom curriculum materials about solar power. The Camel’s Hump Middle School in the Chittendon (Vt.) East Supervisory Union will be installing 345 solar panels, enough to supply 12 percent of the school’s power and the largest public school installation in the state, thanks to $260,000 from the federal government secured by Senator Bernie Sanders, $250,000 from the state of Vermont’s Clean Energy Development fund and a $25,000 grant from local utility company Green Mountain Power. The San Jose (Calif.) Unified School District has what is believed to be the largest K12 solar installation in the country, with panels at 14 sites providing some 5.5 megawatts of electricity, or 30 percent of the 31,000-student district’s electricity needs, saving over $1 million annually. The project was funded in part by an $11 million grant from the California Solar Initiative.

Harnessing the wind

A small but growing number of schools across the country have also installed wind turbines to provide a portion of their electricity and reduce energy costs, particularly in the windy Midwest. Twenty-six states have school wind energy installations, according to the Wind For Schools Project, a program run by a division of the U.S. Department of Energy. The program has installed school wind energy programs in six Midwestern states. Like solar, most installations have required special funding to offset the high initial installation costs. The Nevada (Iowa) Community School District, for example, is powered in part by three wind turbines donated by a local businessman in the early 1990’s, which reduce the district electric bill by $26,000 annually.