Turning on Savings

No matter what an education institution's financial condition, administrators are always looking for ways to cut costs without affecting the learning that goes on in a classroom.

Whether constructing new facilities or modernizing existing buildings, schools and universities that place a priority on energy efficiency can find several ways to cut costs and make their facilities more environmentally friendly. In addition, as more efficient equipment and systems become available, and awareness of conservation practices grows, education institutions have the opportunity to shrink their energy budgets and make more funds available to educate students.


As the 1990s began, Portland Public Schools, the largest district in Oregon, had aging buildings and limited tax resources. Officials decided one way to maximize its resources was to focus on energy conservation.

Spurring the district's efforts was a $20 million line of credit it received from Oregon's State Energy Office to improve energy efficiency and environmental conditions in school facilities. That allowed Portland Public Schools to pursue the energy improvements without taking away from other parts of its budget.

Portland's efforts have included districtwide lighting upgrades, conversion of boilers from oil to natural gas, solar-energy roof panels and energy-management systems that minimize the use of fans and heating equipment.

"It's not that we're doing anything that's cutting edge - it's more the comprehensiveness of it," says Mira Vowles, district energy engineer.

In a district Portland's size (10 million square feet of space in 109 buildings) and age (the average building is more than 70 years old), comprehensive efforts can lead to sizeable savings.

"We have saved more than $11 million in almost 10 years," says Vowles.

That translates to a 22 percent drop in energy use.

So far, says Vowles, the district has used about $9 million of its $20 million line of credit available for energy conservation. Once Portland has carried out all its conservation steps, it estimates savings of $42 million over a 22-year period.

In addition to equipment upgrades, the district has sponsored contests to give individual buildings incentive to improve their energy performance. It also is benefiting from energy tax credits, which are passed through electrical utilities to the district.

Using a design-build process, Portland was able to upgrade its lighting system districtwide in just two years.

Many schools seek out relationships with companies that offer energy-management services and performance contracts, but Portland wanted to manage its system in-house.

"We're able to have more control this way," says Vowles.

Managing the system in-house allows the district to give educational needs priority over energy savings in some cases. For instance, installing occupancy sensors and dimmers in classrooms might make sense for energy conservation, but not for effective classroom management.

"They are too disruptive and vandal-prone," says Vowles. "Kids are challenged to make the sensors turn off the lights. A change in the cloud cover could change the lighting and distract the classroom. Some teachers just taped over the sensors."


Schools building new facilities are able to take advantage of the latest technologies to provide energy efficiency. The Oak Park (Calif.) Unified School District has teamed up with Ventura County to build a library at Oak Park High School that will serve both students and the community at large. It will open next year.

"The county and district have had a joint-use library on the high-school campus for a long time," says Martin Klauss, assistant superintendent of business services. "Over time it had become less and less adequate. We needed a facility with more space and [one that was] more technologically current."

To help pay for the $2.3 million library, the district and county took advantage of grants for energy conservation measures, says Klauss.

The facility will have extensive skylighting with photo-cell lighting controls, photovoltaic panels on the roof, tinted glazing on windows, solar deflection fins and substantial overhangs to limit direct sunlight into the building while providing enough light to create the needed atmosphere for reading. These energy-conserving features will allow the library to shut off 80 percent of its lighting during the day.

SIDEBAR: Star performers in conservation

Ever wonder how energy-efficient your school buildings are?

The federal government now has a system in place to help you answer that question. As an offshoot of the "Energy Star Label for Buildings" initiative, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy have developed an assessment tool to analyze a school facility's energy efficiency. (You can find the assessment program at www.epa.gov/buildings. Click on the icon "New for Schools.")

The assessment ranks buildings on a scale from 1 to 100 and provides schools with baseline information to help them establish efficiency goals and plan improvements. Schools in the top 25 percent nationally in terms of energy efficiency (rated 75 or higher) can qualify for an Energy Star label.

The data required for the assessment: a year of utility bills or other energy-use data; a building's square footage; the number of students enrolled; whether the building has a cafeteria or other cooking facility; whether it is air-conditioned; the average number of hours per week the building is in use; and the year it was built.

Earlier in 2000, the government recognized the first nine districts to receive the Energy Star label: San Diego Unified School District in California; Academy School District 20 and Boulder Valley Public Schools in Colorado; New Haven Public Schools in Connecticut; Kansas City, Kan., Public Schools; Columbia Public Schools in Missouri; McAllen Independent School District in Texas, Milwaukee Public Schools in Wisconsin, and Marion County School District in West Virginia.

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.