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Small changes by schools to save energy making big impact

Saving energy in schools is important for several reasons. Although not all of them are relevant to everyone, there is at least one point each person in the community can relate to. In my role as the director of finance & operations, I know the financial benefits are one of the first to catch my attention.

Many people are unaware that utility expenses are not a fixed cost, but rather an expenditure over which we have some control since our fees are based on use for electricity, natural gas, oil and even water. Taking notice of our energy consumption not only helps reduce our monthly bills, but also shows responsible use of taxpayer’s money.

Energy is often an invisible concept, but not one to ignore. In fact, the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that up to 25 percent of energy used in a school is wasted. This opens a huge opportunity — with a proper operations and maintenance procedures — to save a significant amount of energy.

To help set our district on a path toward these efficient practices, the Austin Public School District joined the Schools for Energy Efficiency program in 2005 to change behavior throughout the district with a team approach to saving energy. Through this program we have simultaneously worked with both the operations staff, by training them on low- and no-cost strategies, and the faculty, along with the students through awareness campaigns and activities. The idea behind the program is to offer schools a way to immediately reduce energy and set the stage for long-term results through a self-implemented plan; one which provides support along the way through customized consulting and networking with other participating schools.

Saving energy has an increasing impact on our natural environment from water and air quality to climate change issues, so the environmental benefits are the third reason why saving energy is great for schools. Efficient use of energy is good for the environment in two ways: First, it reduces pollution such as greenhouse gas emissions, of which 80 percent are from energy production, distribution, and disposal. Secondly, it reduces the use of non-renewable resources such as oil, natural gas, and coal.

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The good news is that small changes we’ve made already have a big impact. The total amount of energy our schools have saved in the seven quarters of reports available reduced 2.2 million pounds of CO2 greenhouse gas emissions which is equivalent to any of the following:

  • 217 passenger cars not driven for a year
  • 128 household’s electric power for one year
  • 834 acres of pine or fir forests storing carbon for one year

These numbers are impressive, especially to the students, so they are engaged in discovering ways they can learn more and participate. By involving students in saving energy, we are educating them to see the impact of their actions. In addition, numerous studies have shown the positive correlation between energy efficient buildings and an improved learning environment; for example, the healthy effects of natural light.
While our district already had energy efficient lighting and boiler equipment in place before implementing the SEE program, we have proven that additional energy savings were possible through behavioral changes, with more than $150,000 in avoided costs thus far and an average energy use reduction of 10 percent.

Next month, our district will receive a national award for our continuous improvement in energy efficiency from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency called ENERGY STAR Leader — 10 percent improvement. We are extremely honored to be the 13th in Minnesota and 32nd in the nation to receive this award.

Austin school district views energy efficiency as one of our greatest opportunities to make a difference.

Lori Volz is the Director of Finance & Operations for Austin Public Schools.

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