Atypical school district spends $400,000 each year on utility bills; some generate costs as high as $20 million per year. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) estimates that many districts could save 25 percent of that money through better building design, widely available energy technologies, renewable energy use and improvements to operations and maintenance.

Nationally, the estimated savings could pay for 40 million new textbooks, 30,000 new teachers or 1.5 million new computers every year. To help schools achieve these savings, DOE created the Energy- Smart Schools campaign as part of its Rebuild America program.

The EnergySmart Schools campaign is designed to motivate schools to use energy wisely and help them do it. Through Rebuild America, schools receive training workshops, publications, recognition and access to a broad network of private and public sector partners for help. On the local level, they can join or create community partnerships to benefit from even broader assistance—direct technical support and financing programs, among others.

Schools that adopt smart energy policies in their buildings, buses and classrooms not only save money but reap a host of other benefits:

  • Classrooms are more conducive to learning, with better lighting, better temperature control and less outside noise.
  • Buses emit fewer dangerous pollutants, particularly into areas where children learn and play.
  • Schools spend less time— thus fewer resources— maintaining and operating buildings and buses.

Behind the scenes, the program works with legislators and policymakers to develop incentives for energy improvements. Also in the works are energy design guidelines to help schools be smart from the start, strategies to encourage businesses to provide more school products and services and efforts to eliminate policies and regulations that are barriers to school energy improvements.

Finally, the campaign creates and distributes teaching materials so that tomorrow’s decision makers build better buildings, use renewable energy technologies, design better buses and continue to be smart about energy.

Success Stories

Many schools are already engaged in energy smart strategies. Through DOE's Rebuild America program, a school in Tanana, Alaska, is saving $22,000 annually by cutting its energy use 30 percent. In Indio, Calif., the Desert Sands Unified School District is using energy savings performance contracts that guarantee savings of more than $300,000 each year for 10 years. In Washington, D.C., with help from the Department of Energy and the Army Corps of Engineers, the city schools will save an estimated $3 million annually over a 10-year period.

Sometimes the simplest steps can save a district a considerable amount of money. Ken Schow, assistant superintendent with the Idaho Falls, Idaho, schools, reports energy savings of $8,500 over the winter holidays alone. "The largest contributor to savings was temperature rollbacks manually done in all buildings," notes Schow. "Simply unplugging specific vending machines that have interior lighting and compressors is very cost effective."

Schow, who believes that schools—typically the second largest consumers of energy in a community—have a moral and financial obligation to conserve energy.

Districts might even consider alternatively fueled school buses to meet the current oil crisis. The Lower Merion School District in Ardmore, Pa., began its move to compressed natural gas (CNG) buses in 1995 when the community raised concerns about noise and pollution from the district’s diesel buses.

Certainly one of the most ambitious energy conservation programs is the one currently underway in the Portland (Ore.) Public Schools.

In 1990, reports Mira Vowles, Portland’s energy engineer, energy use in the district was above average for school buildings and increasing at about five percent a year. The board of education adopted an energy policy that year dedicated to keeping "energy usages and costs at the lowest level that is reasonable and consistent with an efficient learning environment."

The capital improvement phase of the program began in 1993. During the next five years, the lighting in every building was retrofitted, and comprehensive energy retrofits were accomplished in 70 of the district’s buildings. Benefits of the retrofits, in addition to making the district more efficient and dampening the impact of rate increases, include reduced operation and maintenance, fewer emergency outages and the reduction of air pollution emissions.

The energy-awareness phase of the energy program began in 1995, when a utility company partnership provided two energy specialists to instill building user practices.

According to Vowles, the energy program has saved more than $9 million in today’s dollars. "This is particularly noteworthy in light of the ever-increasing computer, printer and fax machine loads, as well as increased evening building use by the district, the Portland Park Bureau and the community," she notes.

Portland’s strategy includes:

  • Accelerating capital improvements while utility incentives were available, including a design-build approach to lighting improvements and a unit-price approach to installing computerized energy management systems;
  • Coordinating energy work with preventive maintenance and bond work;
  • Taking advantage of technological advances in energy control equipment;
  • Installing improved energy accounting software; and
  • Using energy education to increase awareness and change behavior.

School districts might consider the Kingston (New York) School District’s strategy of entering into an energy performance contract with the local power company. Kingston did so with the New York Power Authority, which guaranteed savings. For Kingston this was an equipment replacement program in which oil burners were replaced with new energy-efficient equipment. The power authority provided the financing so the district didn’t have to appeal to the public for upfront costs.

Timing is Right

The timing is ideal now for schools to adopt an aggressive stance on energy. With fuel prices spiraling upward, an effective energy management program is the best insulator against rising costs and is likely to be met with public approval.

Give Help—Get Involved

Businesses and organizations can join DOE in helping America’s schools by participating in the EnergySmart Schools campaign through Rebuild America.

Partners offer services and products ranging from workshops and publications to design and construction. In some cases, they provide school services such as building audits at no or low cost. For more information, call 1-800- DOE-3732 or visit the DOE Energy- Smart Web site at www.eren.doe. gov/energysmartschools.