Finding Green to Go Green

Critical Care

Energy efficiency can be a financial win-win for school districts

Del Stover

The Sarasota County Public Schools spend an average of 96 cents per square foot to heat, cool, light, and power its schools every year.

That’s 34 cents less per square than one of its neighboring school districts, making Sarasota County one of the most energy-efficient school systems in Florida.

Do those few pennies’ difference really matter? Very much so—once you multiply them by the square footage of Sarasota County’s 52 schools. In the past decade, the school district has garnered savings of more than $39 million.

Actually, though, don’t think of that money as savings. Think of it as district funds freed to spend elsewhere, says Deputy Superintendent Scott Lempe.

“Every dollar that we save in electricity,” he says, “is a dollar that goes closer to the classroom.”

Every dollar also was well earned. District officials put a lot of work into reducing their reliance on the power grid. There was a lot of planning with architects and engineers, a great deal of coordination with contractors, and a deliberate, step-by-step development of the district’s portfolio of energy-efficient strategies.

This effort began in the 1990s, when the district first began installing thermal energy storage units on campuses. These units freeze water overnight when utility rates are low—and use melt-off water to cool schools during the day when the cost of electricity rises.

Since then, the district has installed solar panels to produce electricity, installed energy-efficient heating and cooling systems, and recently began replacing schools’ traditional fluorescent bulbs with LED lights that use 50 percent to 70 percent less energy.

These technologies aren’t new—some have been around for decades—but all have seen their energy-saving efficiency improve by leaps and bounds in recent years. Just as importantly, the price of installing these technologies has fallen as well.

No wonder, then, that so many school districts are embracing them—and making a concerted effort to lower their energy costs and to transfer the savings to instruction.

“Energy is the second-largest expense for a school district, so lowering energy use makes sense financially,” says Scott Thach, a senior official with the Alliance to Save Energy, a nonprofit that promotes energy efficiency for its economic and environmental benefits.

Changing landscape

Look closely, and it’s easy to spot a changing landscape on school campuses. Solar panels are an increasingly common sight. So are wind turbines. Meanwhile, more schools are drilling underground to install geothermal heating and cooling systems, and a few are even turning to biomass furnaces that burn discarded brush, tree limbs, and other organic waste products.

School officials also are embracing less-visible but no less important energy conservation strategies. They’re adding insulation to renovated and newly constructed buildings, making better use of sunlight to cut lighting bills, and installing high-tech climate control systems to monitor and conserve a building’s energy use.

Still others are experimenting with what’s known as a “cool roof,” a low-tech strategy that uses reflective paint, insulated tiles, or sheet covering on a school rooftop to reflect sunlight so buildings absorb less heat and use less air conditioning.

“What you’re talking about is controlling your building on multiple levels,” says Daniel Maddon, a regional manager for Honeywell Energy Services Group, which contracts with school districts on energy management. “It’s about roof replacements, new boilers, new windows, lighting retrofits … as well as getting control of those thermostats.”

Nationwide, there’s a sense of momentum—something more than a trend—at work.

It’s not just advances in technology that are fueling interest in this issue. A big motivator is the rising cost of electricity—up 42 percent over the past decade. Today, the nation’s public schools are spending $8 billion a year to meet their energy needs, and cost-conscious school officials are receptive to anything promising to trim demands on the budget.

Indeed, Sarasota’s Lempe credits his district’s energy-saving strategies with helping the district weather the financial challenges of the recent recession. “The district tried a lot of things, and our energy program was the shining star that made the economic downturn viable.”

All of this helps explains why, for example, the number of schools using solar power grew from roughly 700 to more than 3,750 between 2008 and 2012, according to the most recent figures available from the Solar Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy.

That growth has been particularly strong where electricity prices are high or state funding programs are available for energy conservation.

The Claremont Unified School District is one of many California school systems that have jumped on this bandwagon, leading an initiative to install solar panels at 11 campuses and generate 75 percent of the schools’ power needs. School leaders hope to save $6 million on electricity over the next 25 years.

Net zero

Another cutting-edge—yet seemingly mundane—technology available to energy-conscious schools is the latest version of the ubiquitous light bulb. The latest generation of LED lighting can cut electricity costs by 50 percent to 80 percent, and as these bulbs can last a decade or more, their installation cuts annual maintenance costs, as well.

That’s been the experience of the Penn Manor School District in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where three years ago school officials installed 3,700 tubular LED lights in one of its middle schools. The switchover cut the building’s electricity consumption by 50 percent—and generates savings of $32,000 annually.

Over time, the district intends to retrofit all of its schools, says Chris Johnston, the district’s business manager. “We know there will be a positive payback financially, so it makes sense to do it.”

The Holy Grail of energy-conscious school officials is the creation of a “net zero” school, one that produces all of its energy needs on campus. One school that comes close to this ideal is Lady Bird Johnson Middle School in Irving, Texas, a building that normally would spend about $65,000 annually for electricity.

In pursuit of this ambitious goal, the 152,000  square-foot school incorporates a number of energy-saving features. A large canopy constructed along two sides of the building provides shade that lowers air-conditioning costs. More than 100 geothermal heat pumps lower energy usage for heating and cooling by 30 percent, and a sophisticated energy-management system monitors and controls energy use with greater efficiency.

Meanwhile, the school seeks to satisfy its lowered energy requirements by generating its own electricity—with the help of 12 wind turbines and nearly 3,000 solar panels on the roof.

That’s not quite enough to make the school “net zero,” but it comes close, says Jim Scrivner, the district’s division director of facilities and school support services. On average, the school generates 98 percent of its own electricity.

Total construction costs were close to $30 million. The building’s energy-saving structural design accounted for about 5 percent of construction costs, while the power-generating solar panels and wind turbines cost a little more than $3 million.

In the long-term, the building will prove a sound financial investment for the district, Scrivner says.

“Schools normally last 40 to 70 years, so in the long run, we’re going to get that money back and end up saving taxpayers a lot of money. It’s going to be an incredible payback.”

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) agrees with the investment opportunities of “going green.” Incorporating energy-efficient features into renovated or new buildings is an investment that can be recouped, in some cases, in as little as six or seven years, and future savings will, as Scrivner notes, continue for the life of the building.

The fact is, there’s a cost to not making the investment. “Upfront costs can present a barrier to improving energy efficiency in school buildings,” notes the EPA report Energy Efficiency Programs in K-12 Schools.

Sense of momentum

Not everyone is in the position to tackle such an ambitious project as Lady Bird. Yet, say energy-conservation experts, why not take baby steps? Mark Orlowski, executive director of the Sustainable Endowments Institute, says a district leadership team can start cutting energy costs without investing millions of dollars.

As districts renovate older schools, for example, they can take such modest steps as replacing older heating and cooling systems with more energy-efficient models, retrofitting schools with LED lighting, or installing motion sensors to turn off lights when a room is unoccupied. The additional upfront costs often are well within a district’s capability.

“Just try to get going,” Orlowski says. “Do a small project or two. It’s not too difficult, and the savings can be real and significant, and I think you’ll feel a sense of momentum as you see the results of these projects.”

Look hard enough, and energy savings can be found when districts are spending money, experts say. Buying new computers? The EPA estimates that replacing 1,000 aging computers and monitors with more energy-efficient models could save $58,000 in electricity bills in as little as four years.

Whether a school district is just getting started—or already is taking steps in this direction—a school board can prioritize its energy-management efforts through policy. A work group or task force, including your facilities director and key staff, then can develop a course of action that takes into account district resources—and potential funding sources.

That’s how Colorado’s Boulder Valley Unified School District got started. Although the district engaged in some energy-conservation projects as early as the 1990s, school leaders really got serious in 2009 when they developed a “sustainable energy management system,” says Ghita Carroll, director of the district’s Office of Sustainability.

Using funding provided by a 2014 bond issue, the district began to seriously incorporate energy-saving strategies into school designs. Older schools are being retrofitted with high-efficiency heating and cooling systems, extra insulation, and computerized energy-management systems that regulate the schools’ environments.

New buildings also were designed with energy-saving construction features that cut everyday energy use to almost half that of other schools in the district, says Jeff Medwetz, the district’s project manager of energy systems.

One trick to keeping costs down is ensuring that everyone on the design and construction team is on the same page about the district’s commitment to energy savings, he adds. For example, even when installing solar panels is not part of a new school’s original construction plan, it’s important to think ahead and orient the building to maximize the efficiency of solar power if added later.

Funding sources

Every district leadership team knows how to stretch a dollar, and it’s a talent that will serve school leaders well as they look to invest in energy-saving projects. Traditional bond issues, state and federal grants, utility rebate programs, and commercial energy-management contracting firms are potential sources to tap for funding.

While the Irving and Sarasota County school systems relied on traditional bond issues and general operating funds to finance many of their projects, the Tucson, Arizona, school board turned to a commercial firm to finance installation of solar panels at its schools.

The cost of installing and maintaining solar panels on more than 40 school sites was borne by Constellation, a nationwide solar energy company that owns the solar array, says Tina Cook, the district’s energy projects manager.

The school district will pay for the energy produced by Constellation, but school officials expect the deal to cut their electricity costs by upwards of $13 million over the next two decades.

A somewhat similar approach was taken by California’s Salida Union School District, which tapped a building services firm to develop an energy-conservation plan and help the district obtain a $2 million no-interest loan from the state energy commission.

The company made comprehensive infrastructure improvements to cut energy usage and is installing solar arrays on some campuses. The small K-8 school district paid nothing upfront for services but will split future energy savings—estimated at $4.6 million over 20 years—with the company.

Such shared-savings contracts are not the best strategy to maximize savings, experts say —the long-term savings for a district is much higher if it finances the investment for itself. But that’s not always possible.

For the Salida schools, which had experienced several years of declining enrollment and lacked the ability to raise capital funds, the contract was one of the few viable options to take advantage of today’s energy-saving technologies, says Superintendent Twila Tosh.

For district leaders looking for a long-term funding alternative, one strategy beginning to percolate in the education community is to establish a “green revolving fund”—a self-sustaining fund designed to finance future energy-saving projects. “You set aside money in a separate pot, and it is invested in projects, and as these projects create savings, those savings are put back in the revolving fund,” Orlowski says. “It’s a bit like recycling.”

Corporations and universities today establish the majority of green revolving funds, but Sarasota County is one of a few K-12 school districts that have created something similar. The district carefully estimates its savings from construction projects, Lempe says, and, as possible, “we only spend that money on other energy-saving technologies.”

A school district isn’t going to make any progress, however, unless the school board and superintendent get serious about energy savings—and do the homework to do it right, Orlowski says. It’s not about starting off with an ambitious project, either, but developing a well-conceived long-term plan to change how the district is going to become more environmentally and financially responsible.

“Just slapping some solar panels on the roof and declaring yourself powered by renewable technology ... it’s a step in the right direction,” he says. “But don’t invest in a token project and declare victory. This is a long-term effort. And, if you do it right, it can be a real win-win for you financially … and for the world at large.”

Del Stover ( is senior editor of American School Board Journal.

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