With a heating oil and natural gas crisis predicted even before multiple hurricanes devastated many production areas in the Gulf Coast region this year, schools are seeing their already overtaxed budgets further threatened by the high cost of regulating their physical environments.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, America’s primary and secondary schools pay $6 billion annually for energy-related costs. These costs include everything from heating and cooling their buildings, to the cost of the electricity used for running lights, vending machines, and computers, to flushing toilets and preparing student meals.

Fuel oil costs are estimated to rise by at least 40 percent this winter, according to the Energy Department. Natural gas, which is used to supply electricity and/or heat to many homes and schools, also has closed at record highs and has more than tripled in cost compared with the national average from 2000 to 2005–$4.70 per thousand cubic feet. By this same standard measurement, natural gas for November 2005 delivery closed at $14.12.

In response to spiraling energy costs, school leaders are searching for sustainable solutions by using more energy-efficient lighting, computer-enhanced heating and cooling distribution systems, recycled materials that are more energy efficient, natural sunlight for school illumination, and even alternative energy sources.

In addition, many forward-looking school systems are designing or updating their buildings to reap environmental, economic, and social benefits. Many newly constructed or enhanced buildings also bring pedagogy into their building design, using standards set by the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) for building certification that favor energy efficiency and ecologically friendly design.

Existing problems and solutions

Charlie Schneider, sector manager for the schools and government division of the Wisconsin program Focus on Energy, says that, without serious conservation efforts, schools will almost certainly have to begin cutting from other parts of their budgets.

“Natural gas and heating oil prices were at unheard-of highs even before the natural disasters [in the Gulf Coast],” Schneider said.

“Some districts have contingency budgets they can use” to help meet the spike in energy costs they’ll face this winter, he said. “But the problem with a lot of those monies is that, once they’re gone, they don’t come back.”

Schneiderman said the difficulties paying for rising fuel costs can affect all levels of school budgeting.

“I am concerned that energy costs will have a larger [economic] effect on some districts,” he said. “Will it affect curriculum budgets? I hate to say that it will, but I can’t imagine that it won’t.”

Fortunately, there are some strategies that school leaders can employ right away to curtail the effects of soaring energy costs.

“Every school district should be conducting energy audits on their facilities’ physical infrastructure, systems, and processes,” said Steve Olsen, director of finance and operations for Leonardo Academy, a nonprofit organization focused on using the competitive market as a tool for reducing pollution and increasing energy efficiency. “This will help identify systems and operations that are good candidates for energy efficiency and waste-minimization improvements.”

Olson said the rising cost of energy has led to rapid payback in most energy efficiency investments, owing to lower energy use over the building’s lifetime, downsized equipment, reduced space needs for mechanical equipment, and utility rebates.

“Energy audits will also show you if your facilities are good candidates for a guaranteed Energy Savings Performance Contract [ESPC],” Olson said.

ESPCs typically allow schools and other customers to purchase a systems upgrade or service that pays for itself over time, with no up-front costs. The savings in energy operating costs fund the building improvements and financing costs over a specific period of time, and savings are guaranteed on a yearly basis.

“ESPCs can be structured to take advantage of different combinations of financing alternatives. Schools can make the upgrades they need now and pay for them later through the guaranteed energy savings that result,” Olson said.

Gerrit Reinders, director of sustainable energy solutions for Johnson Controls Inc., an energy consulting and equipment company that claims to have helped the education sector save hundreds of millions of dollars in energy costs since the early 1980s, says there are three ways to reduce energy spending for schools: pay less money for energy, introduce technology that consumes energy more efficiently, and–most importantly–make decisions based on the overall savings throughout the life cycle of the structure or improvement, not on the initial cost.

“You could pay less for every molecule of gas that you’re buying and reduce what you pay for every unit of energy,” Reinders said. “The problem with that is it’s not sustainable. The marketplace is changing so quickly, commodity providers are not able to lock in [prices] for the long term. The most you’re looking at is two or three years at any given price rate.”

Introducing technology that consumes less energy is a sustainable way of reducing energy costs that can be repeated as technologies improve, Reinders said. He said upgrading lighting is the quickest way to reduce energy costs for schools.

“If you do lighting, you’re going to save money,” Reinders said. “The technology advances in lighting have improved so quickly over the last decade that almost every three years you can justify going through and doing a lighting retrofit and have the money saved pay for it.”

Reinders suggested an approach to upgrading existing school infrastructures that starts with lighting for an immediate effect on the bottom line–savings that can be used to support longer-term solutions.

“Bundle lighting upgrades with areas in schools that consume energy, like boilers and chillers,” which are used to cool water circulated through ducts for air conditioning, Reinders recommended.

He added that regulations are written into federal, state, and local building codes for air quality, air circulation, room temperature, and other environmental conditions. These regulations were made official by most states in the early 1990s and in no way represent the leading edge of efficient energy management. According to Reinders, energy can be regulated to a much greater degree of efficiency by following standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the USGBC.

Enabling power management functions on a computer network also can reduce energy costs, Reinders said, because software can regulate usage more meticulously than any human can.

“For instance, sometimes there may be more students in a classroom than what it was designed for; sometimes, fewer,” he said. “Motion sensors and sensors placed in air ducts can determine how much fresh air needs to go into the room. As long as you meet the minimum ventilation requirements, there’s no need to bring in any more air. Every bit of air you bring into a building needs to be heated or cooled. Every time you do that, you’re consuming energy.”

Reinders said the most important way schools can manage energy costs is to base new construction and upgrades on the life cycle of the improvement, not on the initial cost.

“Often, in the public sector, the cheapest [provider] will win the contract,” he said.

He illustrated his point with an analogy from information technology.

“Often, really cheap printers use ink like there’s no tomorrow. Go out and buy a cheap printer, and often you spend more money on ink over the life of the printer than you saved. Over the life of that printer, spending money on the front end means saving money over time,” he said.

“The same analogy applies for putting together a building: If you buy a cheap chiller, it’s going to need to be maintained more often, or it’s going to offer very few access points for maintenance.”

One final strategy: Look at sustainable building sites. “Lots of studies prove that natural lighting helps students perform better,” Reinders said. “If you [situate] your building so you can harvest natural daylight, not only will it work to improve student performance, but you’re going to save a whole lot of money lighting buildings with the sun as opposed to unnatural lighting.”

The apogee of savings

Siemens Building Technologies Inc., a provider of solutions in automation and control for lighting and power, has entered a performance agreement with George Mason University to save the Virginia institution at least $1 million per year in energy costs over the next 15 years.

Siemens upgraded the university’s lighting systems by retrofitting or replacing more than 55,000 lamps with more energy-efficient lighting. The company says this upgrade will save 16 million kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity each year. Siemens also is replacing some of the university’s boilers and chillers.

In addition, Siemens is installing its APOGEE Building Automations System to more effectively regulate utility use at George Mason and has agreed to equip the school with newer technology as it becomes available.

George Coyle, account executive for Siemens in charge of the George Mason project, discussed what the company is doing to save energy and money for the university.

“We are sub-metering all the buildings’ electricity and usage from [George Mason’s] central heating and cooling plant. We track back to the different kinds of users in the building, establish a baseline for the amount of energy they are using, and compare from one year to the next,” Coyle said. “We keep track of where the energy is coming from. If usage jumps, we know there’s a problem. If two buildings are used for the same purpose, and one uses $10 per square foot of energy, the other uses $15, they know they have a problem.”

Coyle said this metering information is fed into a data collection program called InfoCenter, which allows energy officials to “slice and dice” energy data in a number of different ways. The software gathers, stores, and organizes energy and utility data and generates reports based on long-term data analysis. Its utility-cost manager function groups and relates data on command. For instance, users can link kilowatt and kilowatt-per-hour measurement data to information such as account numbers, square foot measurements, and other categories. Users then can generate reports on things such as power consumption and cost allocation.

InfoCenter is used in tandem with Siemens’ APOGEE building automation software, which can report on what is going on in any building at any moment and analyzes usage trends over time. The software allows users to control temperature, pressurization, and humidity within a building. Building controls can be set to use less energy during non-peak hours.

Siemens also installed pneumatic controls in the university’s buildings so hard-to-set temperatures can be monitored remotely. Occupancy sensors can adjust the temperature automatically to maintain an average temperature depending on the amount of body heat generated by occupants.

“We save a couple pennies and nickels all along the line,” Coyle said. “It adds up.” Some of the more innovative approaches that Siemens has taken to energy regulation involve the micromanagement of unexpected items.

“We put occupancy sensors on vending machines,” Coyle said. “The theory there is that if there’s nobody in front of the machine and using it, why keep the thing on? We also put a timer on them, it puts the units to sleep [during non-peak hours]. The compressor cycles every hour, so the food doesn’t spoil or melt. Cokes stay reasonably cold, et cetera.”

Siemens is in the process of installing individual chillers in buildings that might need air conditioning in the winter–such as some science and computer labs that must regulate the temperature of the equipment to prevent damage–so extra energy is not needed to bring power from the central chiller plant to cool a handful of buildings, which Coyle likened to “using a tractor trailer to run to the post office.”

Taking the LEED in school design

The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Rating System from the USGBC is a voluntary national standard in which construction and renovation projects earn credits toward certification as sustainable buildings. The standard considers aspects of new building construction and existing building upgrades and maintenance that include building materials, energy use, land use, facility and waste management, and water use.

“All new schools should be built to meet the LEED … national standard, and all existing schools should follow LEED-EB [Existing Building] guidelines,” said Leonardo Academy’s Olsen.

“LEED guidelines can help schools become more energy, water, and waste efficient and help improve the indoor environmental quality of schools, leading to happier, healthier, and more productive staff and students.”

The LEED system is a point-rating system that provides standards for both existing buildings and new structures. The guidelines include point ratings for sustainability of the site, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere control, materials and resource usage, indoor-environment quality, and innovation in design.

According to the USGBC web site, reasons to pay all the fees associated with USGBC membership and LEED certification–somewhere in the neighborhood of $6,000 to $12,350, depending on USGBC membership status and the size of the building–include having your achievement “validated through third-party review” and earning a “LEED Certification plaque and certificate.” Though it might be nice to be among elite peers, most public schools cannot afford this designation on its own merits. Probably the real reason to become certified is that state and local governments are offering a growing number of tax breaks and other incentives for which only LEED-certified buildings qualify.

The Willow School is the first independent school to receive a LEED gold certificate in New Jersey, and one of only 35 in the entire country that have received that certification.

The 15,000-square-foot school is located on the site of a former farm. Recycled, salvaged, and renewable materials were used in its construction. Some of the technologies used in its design include a system for harvesting rainwater from the roof to flush all toilets and using plants to naturally treat and clean septic water.

“Our school reflects our belief that ‘green’ design and energy management are not just ideas, but strategies that are practical and cost-effective,” said Mark Biedron, the school’s co-founder.

Willow School designers chose roof insulation from a Vermont company called Winter Panel Corp., which goes onto the roof in large, insulated panels.

“That’s much better than a typical fiberglass conventional system,” Biedron said. “You put them on with a crane and you lay them on top of your rafter structure, and they seal together. There are basically no air leaks.”

He added, “In the next building, we’re planning on using them on the walls of the structure as well.”

‘The kids see this’

One of the conditions of LEED certification is that materials be labeled. Signs on exposed “green” materials, it is argued, lead to a casual learning environment that underscores the importance of recycling materials in sustaining the earth’s resources.

Teachers are making use of these labeling requirements for pedagogical purposes.

For instance, Willow School uses 100-percent recycled cotton fiberglass, “made from old blue jeans and clothes,” for its wall insulation, Biedron said. These panels of insulation are exposed and labeled at certain points and are used to guide children in their study of seasons, temperature control, energy usage, and more.

The Southern yellow pine used for the posts, beams, and other materials were salvaged from a North Carolina cotton mill that was built in the late 19th century and closed in the 1940s. The Douglas fir rafters were salvaged from a Diamond Match Toothpick factory in Oakland, Maine.

The historical origins of these refurbished elements, the environmental benefits of their use, and their part in the world of recycling are prominently displayed on plaques nearby.

The result, according to Biedron, is an environment in which casual learning is always taking place. Student lessons are built into the very foundations of the building, and students are always interacting with these foundations in mundane activities such as using the bathrooms and opening windows.

“You put it throughout the building, and the kids see this,” Biedron explained. Students learn about energy-saving techniques and the technologies deployed, but they also learn deeper lessons on how to be more responsible global citizens.

Ron Bratlie, director of business and operations for Elk River Areas Schools in Minnesota, said his school system had energy-efficiency plans devised by Johnson Controls built into the design of its new school buildings. Bratlie said retrofits implemented into older buildings in the late 1990s already have saved more than $2 million in energy costs.

Elk River’s Westwood Elementary reportedly is the first LEED-certified new school building in Minnesota. Westwood also has won the EPA’s indoor air quality excellence award, the National Energy Award from the U.S. Energy Association, and several other honorable mentions in different areas.

Teachers at Westwood came up with a low-tech a way of enabling students to better understand energy usage and savings throughout the building: They had students make posters to explain the LEED labeling. The student posters explain the energy-saving technique or conservational technology being used.

“We have low-flow water fixtures,” Bratlie offered as one example. “By the drinking fountain, students put a poster explaining how much less water we were using in that building–which, in that case, was 600,000 fewer gallons a year.”

The posters were made in science classes and employ photographs in which a science lesson in water usage is illustrated.

“At home, [students] ran water for three seconds into a glass,” Bratlie said. “At school, they ran water for three seconds in a glass.”

Students took photographs and compared water usage in both places, with the home-filled glass being much fuller than the on-campus glass. These pictures were then used in the posters to illustrate how the use of low-flow water fixtures saves money on utilities.

“The science teachers and the principals actually use the buildings as a learning environment, a learning tool,” Bratlie said.

Southwest Licking School District in Ohio has entered into an ESPC agreement with Honeywell Building Solutions Inc., a provider safety, security, and energy efficiency systems.

A science teacher from the district’s Watkins Middle School, Dean Bulmer, said Honeywell installed photovoltaic solar panels at his school under the agreement. The solar panels collect sunlight and convert it directly into energy using no moving parts.

Watkins’ solar panel “is located on the southernmost wall of the building,” Bulmer said. “There, it captures the most amount of sunlight that can be gathered throughout the day.”

He added, “We also have the ability to keep track of how much energy is being produced in real time. We can keep track of it on an hourly, weekly, and daily basis.”

Bulmer said he uses the panel to meet state curriculum standards that involve teaching renewable versus nonrenewable resources. “We use it to teach the solar energy component when we teach about different forms of electrical production,” he said.

The school also uses the solar panel as a device to teach basic science skills: collecting, analyzing, and making conclusions about data over a period of time.

Watkins Middle School houses a weather data collection device for a local television station. These weather data are used in tandem with energy production data pulled from the solar panel.

“One of the sensors on the [TV station’s data logger] tells how much light is available during the day,” Bulmer said. “We look for patterns in data collected over one time period. We compare light percentages with energy production and draw some parallels and conclusions about the season and light production during that season.”

Having such a teaching tool on campus improves student learning, Bulmer said.

“Any time you can make something real, there’s going to be a longer-lasting understanding that the kids can have. They’re seeing and experiencing [solar energy production],” he said. “It is much more engaged in terms of making the material real for students.”

Let the sun shine in

In addition to its pedagogical value, evidence is mounting that direct sunlight affects student achievement. Studies have suggested that student performance increases in environments where sunlight is the main source of lighting.

One study commissioned by the California Board for Energy Efficiency analyzed the test scores of more than 21,000 students. The study found that students with the most natural light in their classrooms progressed 20 percent faster in math and 26 percent faster in reading than those with the least natural light. It found that students in classrooms with the largest window area progressed 15 percent faster in math and 23 percent faster in reading than those with the least window area. Students in rooms with diffuse light from an operable skylight progressed 19 percent to 20 percent faster than those in rooms without a skylight.

An early effort to employ solar energy into school design began with Terraset Elementary School in Reston, Va., in the late 1970s in response to that era’s energy crisis. Unfortunately, these efforts never produced the energy savings their designers had hoped for. Terraset’s solar energy collection panels were designed in Saudi Arabia for use in the hot, consistent sunlight of the Middle East and did not hold up well through the cold Virginia winters.

The costs of repairing the cracked panels finally prompted Terraset to remove its solar panel rack.

Most schools with solar energy panels are still using them more for pedagogical purposes than as a main source of energy. The panel at Watkins Middle School is a prime example.

“Production varies depending on sunlight. We have collected 1,435 kilowatt hours since it was installed in the summer of 2004,” Bulmer said. “The basic rate for electricity production is about eight cents a kilowatt hour, so it’s saved about $115 so far.”

The Solar Electric Power Association, an international nonprofit organization that aims to create markets for solar electric power, says there is an 18- to 20-year payback cycle for installing photovoltaic solar panels. That turnaround time likely would make a total photovoltaic power source prohibitively expensive for schools.

Many schools, however, are saving money now by employing the use of much larger windows for lighting and heating.

Elk River’s Bratlie explained how he and his team of designers researched lighting considerations when planning Westwood Elementary and future projects.

“A couple of board members, myself, an architect, and some engineers went to Germany and Switzerland and looked at government and school buildings that were sustainable in order to understand why,” he said.

“We also looked at castles and buildings that were 600 or 700 years old–built to last. We discovered that these sustainable buildings employed some of the same design techniques that we would end up deploying.”

For instance, Bratlie and his team found that those old stone castles were built with large windows capable of capturing the largest amount of daylight possible, for as long as possible.

“It was pretty much the only source of light they had back then,” he said.

In the design of Westwood Elementary, architects employed a great deal of what is known as “passive” solar energy, which situates the building to provide as much natural lighting as possible, reducing electricity costs for lighting, and also provides warmth through large windows to shave the cost of energy needed to heat the building.

“At Westwood, we put extra money into the windows and insulation,” Bratlie explained. “Because we did that, we didn’t have to buy as much mechanical equipment.”

He added: “If you put in bigger windows, you have to use more insulation. We came up with a balance, and the result of [paying the higher front-end cost to install larger windows and premium insulation] was that the cost to operate the building … is projected to be $40,000 less per year.”

Similar techniques were employed at the Willow School in New Jersey to save money on lighting.

“We sited the building on its east-west axis,” Biedron said. “The north sides of the classrooms are full glass, floor to ceiling. We further ‘harvest’ daylight with skylights. … We predict we’ll save 53 percent of our energy costs for lighting.”


United States Department of Energy

Focus On Energy

Leonardo Academy

Johnson Controls Inc.

Environmental Protection Agency

United States Green Building Council

Siemens Building Technologies Inc.

George Mason University

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)

Willow School

Westwood Elementary School

Watkins Middle School

Honeywell International Inc.

Solar Electric Power Association