Conserving energy and sustainability generally are primary concerns for an increasing number of students faculty and staff Photo courtesy of the U.S. Green Building Council.

Conserving energy and sustainability generally are primary concerns for an increasing number of students, faculty and staff.

Power to the Pupils

Fostering energy conservation in schools and universities.

Addressing wasteful spending and unsuitable school facilities is a national imperative. Where we learn matters, and so does the way we budget for education. One of the greatest overall costs to schools and school districts nationwide is energy use, second only to personnel-related costs. Keeping up with energy bills is an ongoing source of strain for many schools; paying for the power to keep lights, computers and appliances, heating or cooling systems and more running.

In 2013, The Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council, along with Kate Crosby, Energy Manager with the Acton-Boxborough Regional School District in Massachusetts, developed a report called “Powering Down: A Toolkit for Behavior-Based Energy Conservation in K-12 Schools”. The report outlines some of the most effective methods for implementing school energy conservation plans, from start to finish. The biggest takeaway: Engage building occupants, especially students.

Anisa Baldwin-Metzger, Manager of School District Sustainability at the Center for Green Schools and co-author of the report, describes the impact of the research, saying, “We saw an opportunity to prove that it was possible for schools to show measurable reductions in energy costs from behavior alone—in the case of schools profiled in the report, a shocking 20 to 37 percent reduction in electricity use.”

Daylighting is a key tactic employed in many new school structures in the quest for energy conservation. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Green Building Council.

District decision-makers across the country should understand the substantial benefits of energy conservation, says Crosby. “People treat energy costs as fixed, as though there’s a hose constantly running in the background with a steady flow that can’t be changed. But that’s not the case; energy costs and consumption can be shifted significantly by engaging faculty, staff and students. A focus on energy conservation can net large cost-savings for the district, and can create marvelous learning and leadership opportunities for students as they participate.”

Crosby emphasizes that making energy data available is critical to programmatic success. “Often people are unaware of how much energy is used in their school. The numbers are very interesting, and they create a terrific feedback loop, so it’s important to share this data. It gets exciting when people can see the numbers start to shift downward as the school community adopts energy-conserving practices.”


Competing to Conserve

Perhaps not surprisingly, the same lessons apply to the higher education sector. In late May, the results of an annual competition known as Campus Conservation Nationals (CCN) were released. The largest energy and water conservation competition for colleges and universities in the world, CCN encourages students and staff to adjust their behavior for a period of three weeks in an effort to reduce energy and water use in campus residential and academic buildings.  At the conclusion of the competition, the top schools for electricity and water conservation are publicly honored.

In 2015, 125 schools in the United States and Canada participated, collectively saving 1.9 million kilowatt-hours of electricity. This roughly translates to removing 182 homes from the grid for a full year, and the reduction in both energy and water saved the schools $290,000.

“School and district staff should be sure to include students during both the design and implementation phases of their behavior change campaigns,” says Chelsea Hodge, Director of Engagement at Lucid, a national coordinator of CCN since its inception in 2010. “In addition to being an incredible hands-on learning opportunity, student involvement during planning and implementation produces deeper and broader engagement and savings.”

Students at Santa Fe Community College help install photovoltaic panels. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Green Building Council.

Hannah Debelius is the program manager for USGBC Students at the Center for Green Schools and oversees the CCN competition for the Center. “I’ve seen students across the country exerting leadership and creativity to reduce consumption, peer to peer, through everything from the humorous ‘Turn Down for Watt’ poster campaign to a ‘Do it in the Dark’ dodge ball game. Camp-outs, eco-Olympics, lights-out dorm hours, and public commitment campaigns all help bring awareness to energy consumption on campus. The more students demonstrate behavior and lead by example, the greater the impact.”

To better equip CCN participants, Lucid and the Center for Green Schools, in conjunction with the Alliance to Save Energy and the National Wildlife Federation published a “Marketing & Behavior Change Guide” full of tactics and strategies to help motivate building occupants to think about and change the ways they interact with their environment. 

Acknowledging the behavioral psychology behind the competition, Hannah says, “CCN has the goal to engage, educate, motivate, and empower students to conserve resources while fostering a culture of conservation within campus communities. The three-week competition period was deliberately chosen to be habit-forming so conservation becomes the norm on campus.”


Learning LEED

Programs like CCN are designed to provide colleges and universities with a fun and engaging context to draw attention to the personal habits we all form and maintain that contribute to either the wasteful or efficient use of limited natural resources and precious funds. Some colleges and universities take it to the next level and embrace a full course of study around best practices in energy conservation and sustainable resource management. 

LEED Lab, now in its second year, is a multidisciplinary immersion course offered by higher ed institutions and supported by the U.S. Green Building Council, developer of the Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design, or LEED, green building rating system. LEED Lab brings together students of various disciplines, faculty and facilities professionals at colleges and universities to leverage the immediate built environment as a living classroom, and to improve existing buildings on campus in the process. 

Energy efficiency is key to LEED certification. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Green Building Council.

As the demand for workforce-ready graduates in technical and scientific fields continues to increase, LEED Lab is designed to equip students with the experience and knowledge to sit for their LEED AP O+M professional credential exam upon completion of the course. The course emphasizes transferrable skills, such as effective communication, project management, critical thinking, problem solving and teamwork.

Jaime Van Mourik, Director of Higher Education at the Center for Green Schools, has overseen LEED Lab since its inception. “Students are an untapped resource on campus, eager to be engaged in actions that have tangible benefits,” says Mourik. “This generation is looking for opportunities to build their portfolio of skills. They are career focused and searching for ways to put their knowledge into action.”

LEED Lab was piloted at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and has since been adopted by 12 other higher education institutions worldwide. While the aim of the program is not specifically to reduce energy use and costs, the reduction in electricity usage and the associated cost savings are baked into the structure of LEED, the very basis for the course.

Patricia Andrasik, a faculty member with the architecture program at The Catholic University, who was instrumental in the creation of LEED Lab says, “Focus on behavioral change first. If sustainability can be taught first through behavioral change within the building, then through physical modifications to the building itself, students will be more mindful of the great impact their actions can have.”

Cassidy Green, LEED Program Coordinator at the University of California Santa Barbara, another LEED Lab participant, agrees, “It’s important to link student conservation actions to a tangible result. For example, if saving money on utility bills via energy conservation frees up those funds for something else on campus, tell them. If the students feel like their actions make a difference and a sense of ownership, they’ll be more excited to participate. And above all, the program should be fun!”

The stage is set for the next wave of school-based energy conservation programs to begin this coming fall. Every building is a lab, a living system that responds to experimental change. As building occupants become more aware of the impact of their actions, better understand the feedback the building is giving them, and make social connections around their choices and behaviors, the potential for both energy and cost-savings will only grow.

Peterson is a Media & Communications Specialist with the U.S. Green Building Council, based in Washington, D.C.

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