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A Culture of Energy Efficiency Begins at School


An innovative program called the Better Buildings Challenge is creating a culture of energy efficiency while helping schools save more than a little money. The program provides a living laboratory for educating youth about energy use, data, and technology while also putting money back into shrinking budgets.

Crystal McDonald, an energy policy advisor for the U.S. Department of Energy and K-12 sector lead for the Better Buildings Challenge, spoke to a group of high school students in the Washington D.C. area. "Our country is spending $80 billion dollars (that's billion with a B) in energy costs on an annual basis," said McDonald in an EnergyTalks video.

The Better Buildings Challenge collaborates with participants to help track and reduce energy, water use and costs across their building portfolio. The program creates and shares energy efficiency results, stories and best practices to replicate successes across the country.

Also known as a voluntary recognition program, this call to action was launched by President Obama in 2011 to accelerate energy efficiency in commercial, industrial and public buildings. The goal of the program is to reduce energy consumption by 20 percent over a 10-year period.

McDonald is working with about 25 school districts from small rural to large urban areas. The program pays close attention to differences in geographic and size diversity to learn and share what can be achieved in similar facilities and locations.

We spend roughly $8 billion dollars annually in the public school system just on utility costs. "Energy efficiency has potential to redirect significant savings back to educating students while establishing a safe, healthy, and productive environment for learning." McDonald noted more than once during her talk that energy efficiency not only saves money but can also mitigate climate change.

Partners working with the Better Buildings Challenge are installing more efficient interior and exterior lighting systems, implementing energy management information systems, and helping schools overcome both financial and technological barriers.

energy efficiency
A lot of energy goes into making the environment more comfortable like space and water heating, computers, technology, office equipment, and cooking equipment in the cafeteria. In particular, the program and its partners focus on a few big opportunities for promoting savings in schools across the country:

  • Fleet conversions (converting school buses)
  • Zero energy buildings
  • Advanced plug and process loads
  • Workforce training and developments
  • Ongoing workshops, competitions, events

Cities across the U.S. are adopting benchmarking disclosure policies as a result of some of these program efforts. For example, BuildSmart DC is an online system for tracking and comparing school building energy use.

Benchmarking helps the school districts manage energy use proactively, assess building performance, and potentially identify billing errors. Philadelphia school district did an analysis and discovered about $1 million in utility billing errors.

To demonstrate the impact of efficiency on energy use, the challenge program compared two schools in the Washington D.C. area – McKinley Tech and Dunbar High Schools. Although both schools are pushing 100 years old, Dunbar has a brand new building that opened about a year ago with a 463 KW solar panel.

Comparing energy profiles of the two schools side by side, the data showed a significant difference in the energy use intensity (energy per square foot of building space). Although both schools are similar in size, Dunbar's energy use intensity is less than half of McKinleys. This equates to Dunbar saving more than $200,000 in annual energy costs, which is equivalent to reducing more than 1100 tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

To watch the EnergyTalks video and hear more about what is happening to reduce energy in the schools and build a culture of energy conservation, check out the video here.