Schools eye stim funds for energy efficiency

The $787 billion economic stimulus package contains billions of dollars to help make school buildings more energy efficient–upgrades that could save individual schools thousands of dollars in operating expenses.

The candy machine at Henry Sibley High School in Minnesota knows when students are roaming the halls and automatically powers down when they’ve gone home. The basketball court still shines, but under the glow of fluorescent tubes that suck up a fraction of the juice the old lights used.

Thanks to such measures, energy costs across the school district in this Twin Cities suburb already are down by nearly a third. Officials want to trim the expenses even more, but that will require investing in upgrades.

The federal economic stimulus dollars could be just what they need. Some of the billions of dollars trickling down from Washington will be used to make public buildings more energy efficient. School officials hope long-term savings can sprout from those one-time upgrades–the types of projects that get shoved aside when budgets are squeezed and tax levies fail.

"The money we spend on electric, water, gas, and oil–those dollars compete with dollars for textbooks and teachers," said Jay Haugen, superintendent of Independent School District 197, which serves West St. Paul, Mendota Heights, and Eagan, Minn..

The economic stimulus package contains $6.3 billion for state and local governments to make energy usage more efficient, including in public buildings. Schools are eligible for some of that money–in addition to a $22 billion zero-interest bond program for school construction projects created in the recovery package. Nationwide, there are roughly 80,000 public school buildings.

State governments know how much money they’ll receive, but details about how the money will get from Washington to local school systems are still being worked out. Schools in many states will have to compete with other public buildings for energy dollars, and in most cases, projects will require local matching funds.

Steve Nadel, executive director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, said the conversation about how best to spend the money is just getting started, and it’s likely to play out differently in every state. But he expects schools to be in a prime position to snag dollars for simple things, such as new light bulbs and windows, as well as pricier projects such as more efficient furnaces and new roofs.

Education officials in Idaho are batting around ideas for spending up to $24 million of the energy money on projects focusing on schools. Paul Kjellander, administrator of the state’s Office of Energy Resources, said a sizable chunk could be used to install solar panels on school buildings.

Boise school district leaders want to tap into the pot to rid their buildings of drafty windows, power-wasting lighting, and inefficient heating and cooling systems. Savings, however modest, could be critical for a district about to lay off 122 full- and part-time teachers.

Wayne Davis, a former superintendent who now directs the Idaho Association of School Administrators, said lowered utility costs would free up money for higher priority initiatives. "It’s things like class size reduction," he said.

People who track school improvement projects say many schools already have done what they can to conserve energy, such as unplugging computers at night and shutting off banks of lights.

"That only takes you so far," said Judy Marks, associate director of the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities. Now, Marks said, schools that "had the will but not the way" to make more expensive upgrades could move those projects ahead with federal help.

The money is enticing to the head of the La Grande school district in northeastern Oregon, where residents voted down two recent levy requests that would have paid for projects like heating system upgrades, window replacements, and roof repair. Superintendent Larry Glaze said the investment in building fixes pays off.

"In these extraordinary times that we’re in, obviously every dollar counts," he said.

In the Mendota Heights, Minn., district, Haugen said officials will look to the federal stimulus money to fund the next steps on energy efficiency, such as increasing the number of classrooms equipped with sensors that will shut off lights if there’s no movement or sound. There’s also talk of lighting school parking lots with energy-efficient LEDs instead of incandescent bulbs.

Half the district’s classrooms already have automated lighting, and the high school is seeing savings from investments in two new high-efficiency condensing boilers and an automated ventilation system that shuts down parts of the building that aren’t being used.

The efficiency upgrades the district already has made reportedly are saving $100 per pupil, or about $500,000 a year.

"Take that across the whole state, and that’s quite a lot," Haugen said.


Independent School District 197

American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy

National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities

See also:

New publication offers energy efficiency guidance for K-12 schools

‘Green’ school buildings making a surge

eSN Special Feature: Surviving soaring energy costs

Feds: Schools could save $1.5 billion in energy costs

Note to readers:

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