“I promised the group that the winning school would receive six new interactive whiteboards … as a prize. I suggested energy savings ideas such as turning off lights when leaving the room, unplugging computers and electric appliances when not in use, removing small heaters and refrigerators from classrooms, and using fluorescents versus incandescent [bulbs] in small [light] fixtures. I suggested getting teachers and students involved in making a school-wide change to energy efficiency,” said Airhart.

The finance department carefully tracked kilowatt usage at each school by comparing kilowatts expended during the same month in the previous year to those used in the current year. Each month, officials tracked the accumulated savings as a total percentage from one month to the next. This energy savings spreadsheet was shared at each monthly leadership team meeting and at each school board meeting.

In talking with the supervisor of plant operations, Airhart also discussed the variables that could be controlled as a system, such as programmable automated heating and cooling controls in some schools. They agreed to set thermostats four degrees cooler or hotter across the system and to turn down the heat or turn off the AC during nights and weekends. At older buildings, which were not automated, they requested that principals do the same. The maintenance department helped schools lower the lighting output in hallways and other high-traffic areas. They also decreased nighttime safety lighting in buildings to lower but safe levels.

By the contest’s end, the school system overall had saved more than 15 percent of its previous year’s energy usage, simply by developing better energy-use habits. “The net savings for the system last year topped $450,000 and well exceeded my hopes of saving a few thousand dollars,” said Airhart.

This year, with the availability of state Energy Efficient Schools Initiative funds, Airhart says her system will begin changing out lights in older buildings from T-12 to T-8 fixtures.

But it’s not just Airhart’s district that is making a difference.

Elizabeth Peterson, a special-education facilitator at Houston Hill Junior High in Alabama’s Montgomery Public Schools, said savings came when her district installed energy-efficient light bulbs and upgraded several heating systems.

“These were installed with a guarantee, so if [they didn’t save money], the company would have to repay us,” Peterson said. “Another way we are saving money is by unplugging unnecessary items like microwaves and small refrigerators. Teachers are going to share these spaces instead. It has been determined that if we turn off our computers from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., the district will save $200,000 out of a $5.2 million annual electrical outlay.”