Green Schools : The Color of Money
School districts arediscovering theabundant financialgains to be had bygoing green.
WHEN ARTHUR STELLAR came to Massachusetts' Taunton PublicSchools in 2005, he knew that part of his job as superintendent wouldbe cost cutting. That's no easy task without sacrificing the quality ofeducation the district provided. How to decrease what you spendwithout eliminating vital resources? One way, Stellar says, is to assesswhat you're already doing-- and then get better at it.
"Something all schools are doing is consuming energy," he says. With energy costs on the rise, "we needed to find a way to better use our resources."
For most districts, energy spending ranks second behind only personnel expenditures. That means conservation can have a huge impact on both the environment and the budget. But becoming more energy efficient isn't just about turning off lights and shutting down idle computers. It's about rethinking the way things are done at every level of the organization-- taking into account everything from natural gas and electricity use to HVAC (heating, ventilating, and air conditioning) systems, grounds maintenance, and construction procedures. Developing a long-term plan that will maximize savings requires a broad range of expertise not typically found at the district level. For Taunton Public Schools, that's where Energy Education came in.
A specialist in developing people-based energy conservation programs for school districts around the country, Energy Education was tasked with helping Taunton find ways to decrease its energy consumption in order to increase its bottom line. "To be successful, you have to change people's habits and processes," says Chuck Fasnacht, president of the company's Northeast division. "Our goal is to take energy dollars and convert them into education dollars."
A TYPICAL VENDING MACHINE costs between$400 and $450 a year to run. By using amotion sensor that shuts down the machine's compressorwhen there is no activity in the room, TauntonPublic Schools (MA) expects to cut that cost by up totwo-thirds with each of the 40 to 50 vending machinesin the district.
Over the past two years, the program developed by Energy Education has helped Taunton save more than $660,000 in energy costs. That figure includes costs on electricity, natural gas, fuel oil, and water. Everything from disabling vending machine lights to managing irrigation has played a role in the savings.
"For example," says Matt Stellar, the superintendent's son and Taunton's energy manager, charged with implementing and overseeing the conservation effort, "the average vending machine costs $400 to $450 per year to run. By using a simple motion sensor that shuts down the machine's compressor when there is no activity in the room, we can cut that cost by up to twothirds." Repeated across the 40 to 50 vending machines throughout the district, the savings are significant.
"We have a variety of tools that we use to help with the process," Stellar says, including energy accounting software that helps the district track energy consumption. Used in conjunction with data loggers-- small devices that can be placed throughout the district to help measure things like temperature, light, and humidity-- the software helps Stellar pinpoint areas of concern, and then make the necessary changes. "It has been a very important part of our success," he says. "It provides accountability for the steps we are taking and helps show us what's working and what needs to be improved."
If the district community continues to adhere to the recommendations made by Energy Education, Stellar projects that Taunton will reach $1 million in savings by midsummer.
"If you can show your taxpayers that you're gettinga better return on your investment while goinggreen at the same time, that's a tremendous gain."
A Solar Solution
At Top of the World Elementary School in Laguna Beach, CA, the school community not only cut its energy costs, but changed the way the campus was powered.
In 2003, after passing a bond measure that created funds for school modernization, the Laguna Beach Unified School District started thinking about alternative forms of energy-- and that led to Top of the World's decision to go solar. But because solar power modifications do not qualify for public bond funds in California, the district had to find another way to finance the upgrade.
After securing $168,000 through a state grant and another $68,000 from district funds, Eric Jetta, the district's director of facilities and grounds, contacted solar integrator Borrego Solar to determine the project's feasibility.
"Solar isn't going to work for every school," says Borrego's chief marketing officer, Mike Hall, so it's important for a district to consult with professionals in developing a thorough costbenefit analysis. "Obviously, weather plays a large role," says Hall, but so do school size, energy needs, and the ability to comply with local utility regulations and design and construction standards set by the state's Division of the State Architect-- in addition, of course, to having the funds to complete the project.
For Top of the World, once the financing came through, implementing a solar energy solution made sense, as the cost savings would be immediate and would eventually pay back the price of the system and then some. Installation consisted of 200 solar panels running through five inverters, producing approximately 4,500 kilowatts per month. Launched in 2006 and projected to last a minimum of 15 years, the solution was designed with a special energy kiosk located in the school's media center. Through the PC-like station, students and faculty are able to see in real time both the live generation of power and the energy demands of the school.
TOLLESON UNION HIGH SCHOOL DISTRICT (AZ)has taken the printed information packetsit provided to school board members before theirboard meetings and moved them online, conservingbetween 500 and 800 pounds of paper per year, equalto about $4,500 in savings on paper, toner, employeetime, and delivery.
"The kiosk is an important component," says Jetta, adding, "We wanted to [provide] an educational aspect of this system for the student population." The kiosk provides trend logs and other historical data that can be translated into concrete lessons to teach students about energy consumption, solar power, and conservation.
According to Jetta, with the system in place, Top of the World saw savings in energy costs totaling $40,000 in the first year of implementation. In addition to the cost benefit, Jetta is quick to point out an unusual local incentive. "As a constant system," he says, "energy is produced even when the school isn't occupied. Because our system is connected to the local utility, any excess energy is fed back into the grid and is used to power homes and businesses in the community.
"It's fascinating to see how [the community] has responded to our efforts. People have been very supportive. They think we are doing something right."
Jetta notes that Laguna Beach USD has long been pioneering energy management programs. From specially coated windows mounted throughout the district to help maximize natural light while reducing interior heat, to requiring higher energy ratings on all HVAC equipment, to installing rain sensors on irrigation systems to decrease unnecessary water consumption, the district continues to look for ways to cut costs while reducing its footprint on the environment. "Solar power," Jetta says, "is just another way to augment our overall program."
Typically, paper use is another area where districts can take steps to reduce waste and streamline their processes.
Arizona's Tolleson Union High School District routinely produced about 500 notebooks of printed information each year for its school board members in advance of the board's biweekly meetings. The production of these "board books" over the course of the year consumed 250 reams of paper. After witnessing a display on paperless presentations at the National School Boards Association's annual conference in 2006, members of the district's governing board decided it was time to explore the benefits of going to digital, paperless information packets. Now the pages of content-- meeting agenda, background on topics to be discussed-- appear on a password-protected website accessible to board members and administrators. The online portal, called Visual Board Books and designed by Phoenix-based Endexx, has replaced the printed, bound notebooks, cutting paper and ink use, wear and tear on equipment, and material costs associated with production and distribution, and relieving board members of the hassle of toting around cumbersome documents.
IN THE FIRST YEAR of its move to asolar-powered campus, Top of theWorld Elementary School in Laguna Beach, CA, sawsavings in energy costs totaling about $40,000.
"We are always looking for ways to reduce the amount of paper we use," says Karyn Eubanks, assistant to the district superintendent, who was responsible for implementing the program, "so I was very excited to get to do this."
According to Eubanks, the district had been creating 20 notebooks for each school board meeting, filling each with approximately 250 pages of material. When multiplied by the average number of meetings it held in a year-- 25-- the savings amounted to about 125,000 sheets of paper. And that doesn't even account for the other materials that no longer need to be purchased and the hours that are no longer spent assembling the notebooks. Eubanks estimates that what once took her three days to complete now takes her only eight hours.
Another, less obvious environmental savings is the reduction in fuel consumed by the courier service that delivered the notebooks to each member of the board before every meeting. "It's not something you think about," Eubanks says, "but it is a reality."
Todd Davis, CEO of Endexx, says his company's web-based board books have the potential to save the average school district between 500 and 800 pounds of paper per year. In a district like Tolleson, the total savings comes to approximately $4,500 annually after calculating paper, toner, employee time, and delivery costs. "If you can show your taxpayers that you're getting a better return on your investment while going green at the same time," says Davis, "that's a tremendous gain."
For Eubanks the formula is simple. "In the end," she says, "saving time is wonderful. Going green is wonderful. But if we can put money back into the classroom, that is the most important reason to do this. We're fortunate to be in the position where we're doing all three."
Chris Riedel is a freelance writer based in Sanford, FL.
This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.