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Schools harness learning power

As the use of technology increases, districts find efficiencies and other solutions to offset electricity costs
Source: U.S. Department of Energy / Source: Orlando Utilities Commission
Source: U.S. Department of Energy / Source: Orlando Utilities Commission

Faced with tight budgets and the expanding use of electricity-hungry technology, districts are turning to energy efficiency solutions that don’t sacrifice learning power.

“Academic achievement is always foremost in everyone’s mind, and parents, teachers and administrators all want to be first in that space where you’re providing the latest tools—the tablets, laptops and phones that students use to do homework,” says Anna Ferrera, executive director of the School Energy Coalition, a public school-based energy advocacy organization.

“The desire to be up-to-date on technology adds to power demands and other operational aspects, such as the way you design your classrooms,” she says.

Upgrading classrooms

Huntley Community School District near Chicago, for example, managed to save money and energy when it recently went 1-to-1—an initiative that would seem to require more electricity.

The district now saves nearly $700,000 annually over what it spent on power seven years ago, says Doug Renkosik, director of operations and maintenance.

To achieve those results, the district took a multipronged energy management approach that involved shifting from computer labs to laptops and Chromebooks. Computers are no longer left running idly.

“In the old days—the old days being 15 years ago—the traditional box computers sitting on the floor used to consume more energy than the monitor,” says Renkosik. “Now they consume less, and the monitor is the big energy consumer.”

Learning spaces now require less overhead lighting because every student and teacher has an illuminated screen in front of them. Classrooms are lit to the new standard of 50 foot-candles, rather than the previous standard of 70, further reducing energy consumption.

Because utility companies set annual rates by measuring peak periods, the district also staggers when equipment comes on each day, limiting usage spikes.

Digital controls were upgraded on HVAC and lighting equipment, and sensors were added so that only occupied rooms are heated, cooled or lit. Seven of the nine buildings in the district were recently recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star program.

Upgrading Wi-Fi while managing costs and power needs is another challenge for many districts. Some districts band together to improve purchasing opportunities. For instance, the state of Connecticut has formed a school collaborative that works with internet providers to offer affordable access and to upgrade existing infrastructure.

Many 1-to-1 districts have one wireless access point (internet connecting device) per classroom, which can be overkill as a single access point often has much higher capacity than one class. Combining access points can increase efficiency without affecting Wi-Fi performance.

Lighting strategies

State and federal programs provide millions of dollars in grants and loans to K12 schools for energy improvement. In 2012, the Clean Energy Jobs Act (Proposition 39) passed in California, providing $550 million for public energy projects, including at K12 schools.

Santa Paula USD used those funds to complete a districtwide upgrade focused on conservation and efficiency that is projected to save $4 million over 30 years. The district implemented three primary projects across more than 75 buildings, says Doug Henning, facilities and construction manager.

Exterior lighting was changed to longer-lasting LED bulbs, new energy management controls were installed—such as digital thermostats and online monitoring software—and all wall-mounted HVAC units in long-term, portable buildings were replaced with newer, more efficient models.

“I’d walk by on the weekend at night and I’d hear the air conditioning humming in the vacant buildings,” says Henning. “And I’d be thinking, ‘That can’t be good—we’re just wasting energy.’”

At Huntley Community District 158, exterior lighting is turned off overnight, which saves energy and has even improved security as vandals cannot see well enough to cause mischief, says Renkosik.

Lighting upgrades have also had a big impact at Ysleta ISD in El Paso, Texas. A $400 million bond was recently passed to consolidate buildings in the 102-year-old district, as well as eliminate inefficiencies.

In addition to replacing older facilities with fewer, more efficient  structures and installing high-efficiency air-conditioning units, the district switched to LED bulbs in more than 60 buildings.

The initiative, which took only six months to complete and caused little disruption to instruction, has already saved the district between 15 and 18 percent on electricity costs. It also helped the district absorb a recent 11 percent rate increase from the El Paso Electric Company, says Superintendent Xavier De Le Torre.

Ysleta ISD is currently replacing individual desktop printers with fewer centralized, commercial-grade copiers and printers.

In addition to saving energy by reducing the number of plugged-in devices, the move reduces need for ink cartridges that can cumulatively cost more than $3 million per year. This increased efficiency builds capacity in buildings to accommodate learning technology such as Chromebooks and smartboards, says De Le Torre.

“If you don’t consider ways to recapture monies in your operational budget to redirect to programs for students, then at some point operating your school district will become unsustainable,” he says. “We have infinite need but finite resources.”

Alternatives and audits

Districts have also harnessed alternative energy sources, such as solar power, and there are numerous programs and incentives available.

Sheridan School District in Indiana converted entirely to solar power two years ago, opting for a net-metering program in which the district is connected to the regional energy grid and receives credits for days its solar arrays generate more energy than is used.

To fund the $4.3 million project, the district signed a 20-year contract with its regional electric provider that covers all energy used in daily operations and also includes the cost of the panels, installation and maintenance. The district projects total savings of up to $5 million over the next two decades.

Before adding an extra energy source, however, buildings should be first operating near peak efficiency. Shrinking an energy footprint may help eliminate the need for additional power sources.

A district might also consider bringing in energy efficiency experts to conduct usage audits. Such partnerships can provide districts with solutions tailored to their particular needs.

For example, Ysleta ISD’s location in southern Texas requires climate-controlled classrooms, so hiring an expert who understands upgrading HVAC for efficiency is key.

“Ultimately,” adds Ferrera of the energy coalition, “you really want to be able to say, ‘Here’s the project we put in, it works, and here are the dollars and energy that we’re saving.’


Ray Bendici is deputy editor.