Without an act of Congress or a single tax levy, our schools could get $1.5 billion in brand-new funding, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. That’s the amount of money the department estimates schools are spending on unnecessary energy costs.

Some enterprising school systems are striving to put a damper on their excess energy bills, and they’re taking clever steps to save energy—from replacing inefficient computers and other appliances to installing fuel cells and solar panels.

The average California school spends about $180 per student each year on energy and only about $150 per student for books, according to Daryl Mills, a supervisor at the California Energy Commission.

To successfully correct that imbalance will take focus and dedication. That’s why, at the Rio Linda Union School District in Sacramento, Calif., Resource Conservation Manager Tim Bond has just one job: Save money.

Since starting last year, Bond reportedly has helped the district reduce its $1.1 million energy costs by more than 10 percent.

"Fifty percent of the savings can come from just getting teachers and students to change their behavior on a day-to-day basis," Bond said.

He’s also replaced inefficient appliances and computers, installed heat-saving windows, and popped in more than 7,800 low-watt light bulbs.

Bond is working with the Sacramento Municipal Utilities District, which has agreed to pay his salary for two years. After that, the 24-school district will use energy savings to pay him.

Schools across California and the nation are taking advantage of several state and federal programs to make their schools more energy efficient, using projected savings to pay for the conservation projects.

Although such programs have been around for years, many schools have redoubled their efforts to reduce energy costs since California’s 2001 energy crisis, when the state’s wholesale electricity prices skyrocketed.

California’s two main energy conservation initiatives, the Bright Schools and the High Performance Schools programs, provide design consultation; help identify cost-effective, energy-saving measures; and provide low-interest loans to outfit schools. Starting this fall, for instance, California school districts have been able to get a rebate of up to 90 percent for installing solar panels.

"A lot of the programs grew from the energy crisis," Mills said "And interest in the programs has increased dramatically. We spent about $10 million a year in loans before, and last year we did about $65 million."

The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that the energy bill for schools across the nation tops $6 billion—about 25 percent more than necessary.

At least a dozen California school districts, including the Los Angeles Unified School District and the West Contra Costa School District, are participating in the federal EnergySmart Schools program.

The program intends to reduce schools’ energy costs while increasing their use of clean-energy technologies. Participating schools receive information about improving temperature control and indoor air quality through the use of new energy-saving technologies, such as energy-efficient lighting systems and geothermal heating and cooling systems.

Schools also can finance energy-conservation projects through private companies and pay off loans from projected savings.

The Cape Cod Community College in Massachusetts, for example, recently worked with Noresco, a national energy service company, to complete a $1.3 million campus improvement project. It included installation of a clean-burning fuel cell that provides electricity and warms the library using heat that otherwise would dissipate.

"Technically, [the improvement project] doesn’t cost us any money, and it doesn’t cost the taxpayers any money," said Robert Cleghorn, the school’s director of environmental health and safety, explaining that energy savings match or exceed the program’s costs.

Links:

California Energy Commission
http://www.energy.ca.gov

EnergySmart Schools program
http://www.eren.doe.gov/energysmartschools