Fostering a Culture of Energy Efficiency in the Schools

  • energy efficiency in the schools

An innovative program called the Better Buildings Challenge is creating a culture of energy efficiency in the schools while helping them save more than a little money.  The program provides a living laboratory for educating youth about energy use, data and technology while also putting money back into shrinking budgets.

Crystal McDonald, energy policy advisor for the U.S. Department of Energy and K-12 sector lead for the Better Buildings Challenge, spoke to a group of high school students in the Washington D.C. area. “Our country is spending $80 billion dollars (that’s billion with a B) in energy costs on an annual basis,” said McDonald in an EnergyTalks video.

The Better Buildings Challenge collaborates with participants to help track and reduce energy, water use and costs across their building portfolio. The program creates and shares energy efficiency results, stories and best practices to replicate successes across the country.

Also known as a voluntary recognition program, this call to action was launched by President Obama in 2011 to accelerate energy efficiency in the schools and commercial, industrial and public buildings. The goal of the program is to reduce energy consumption by 20 percent over a 10-year period.

McDonald is working with about 25 school districts from small rural to large urban areas. The program pays close attention to differences in geographic and size diversity to learn and share what can be achieved in similar facilities and locations.

We spend roughly $8 billion dollars annually in the public school system just on utility costs. “Energy efficiency has potential to redirect significant savings back to educating students while establishing a safe, healthy, and productive environment for learning.” McDonald noted more than once during her talk that energy efficiency in the schools not only saves money but can also mitigate climate change.

Partners working with the Better Buildings Challenge are installing more efficient interior and exterior lighting systems, implementing energy management information systems, and helping schools overcome both financial and technological barriers.

energy efficiency in the schools
A lot of energy goes into making the environment more comfortable like space and water heating, computers, technology, office equipment, and cooking equipment in the cafeteria. In particular the program and its partners focuses on a few big opportunities for promoting energy efficiency at schools across the country:

  • Fleet conversions (converting school buses)
  • Zero energy buildings
  • Advanced plug and process loads
  • Workforce training and developments
  • Ongoing workshops, competitions, events

Cities across the U.S. are adopting benchmarking disclosure policies as a result of some of these program efforts. For example, BuildSmart DC is a online system for tracking and comparing school building energy use.

Benchmarking helps the school districts manage energy use proactively, assess building performance, and potentially identify billing errors. Philadelphia school district did an analysis and discovered about $1 million in utility billing errors.

To demonstrate the impact of efficiency on energy use, the challenge program compared two schools in the Washington D.C. area – McKinley Tech and Dunbar High Schools. Although both schools are pushing 100 years old, Dunbar has a brand new building that opened about a year ago with a 463 KW solar panel.

energy efficiency is the first step, then solar panels

Comparing energy profiles of the two schools side by side, the data showed a significant difference in the energy use intensity (energy per square foot of building space). Although both schools are similar in size, Dunbar’s energy use intensity is less than half of McKinleys. This equates to Dunbar saving more than $200,000 in annual energy costs, which is equivalent to reducing more than 1100 tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

To watch the EnergyTalks video and hear more about what is happening to promote a culture of energy efficiency in the schools, check out the video here.


Author: Kathryn Thomsen

Founder of Hundredgivers, a nonprofit supporting and accelerating sustainability initiatives benefiting local and global communities. Kathryn is a social entrepreneur, consultant, researcher, writer and urban farmer. She collaborates with individuals, organizations, and businesses to develop climate change solutions, clean energy, and sustainability strategies and programs.

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