Circuit Overload: Schools Waste $1.5 Billion in Energy Costs Every Year

By D'Orio, Wayne | E Magazine, July-August 2006 | Go to article overview

Circuit Overload: Schools Waste $1.5 Billion in Energy Costs Every Year


D'Orio, Wayne, E Magazine


Have you ever driven by a school in your community at night and seen the lights blazing, when you know the building is empty? Do you wonder how much money and energy that wastes? The United States Department of Energy has an answer for you, sort of. If your school district is typical, one of every four dollars it spends on energy is unnecessary.

That's more money than the district likely spends on textbooks and computers each year. While 15 percent of this waste comes from outdated equipment, one of every 10 energy dollars could be saved simply by turning off unneeded lights, shutting down computers and leaving personal space heaters at home, experts say.

"I've talked with superintendents who have already spent their energy budgets with three months left in the fiscal year," says John Carter, Honeywell's director of energy services.

"The 25 percent figure is conservative, it's probably higher than that in many, many schools," says Merrilee Harrigan, the director of education at the Alliance to Save Energy. "Schools have a lot of old stuff. We don't often fund our schools very well, so that is a problem."

Edgar Hatrick, superintendent of Loudoun County Public Schools in Leesburg, Virginia, says, "Money is still a wonderful motivator." In 12 years of the district's energy-saving program, Hatrick says Loudoun County has been able to avoid $17 million in energy costs in its 68 schools. "That's bought some textbooks and teachers" he adds.

Hatrick's energy program, with help from an outside company, Energy Education in Wichita Falls, Texas, pays attention to items both big and small. The district completes regular energy audits, replaces old boilers before they become inefficient hogs, switches out single-pane windows, and even goes so far as to disconnect the lightbulbs in its soda machines to cut down on electricity costs. "We mind the pennies, nickels and dimes," Hatrick says.

Nationwide, that spare change can add up. There are 133,000 K-12 public schools. Together, energy costs for these buildings total $6 billion, so $1.5 billion could be saved.

There are some gross examples of misuse. In one elementary school in Oregon, a malfunctioning heating and ventilation system ran around the clock and on weekends. In the Charleston County [South Carolina] School District, the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) system ran during the summer in many unused buildings to combat mold growth. The district has since devised a system that keeps humidity in check without unnecessarily cooling the empty buildings.

Chances are this type of waste isn't news to the people who run your town's schools. A 1995 nationwide survey of infrastructure needs shows nearly half of school officials reported at least one unsatisfactory environmental issue in their buildings, from heating to lighting to ventilation to air quality. More than 40 percent gave their schools an unsatisfactory energy-efficient rating.

So why aren't these problems being fixed? It all comes back to money. The same survey estimates that it would cost $112 billion to repair, renovate and modernize the country's schools.

But more and more school districts are finding ways to make these changes without big payments up front by signing performance contracts with companies such as Honeywell, Johnson Controls and Energy Education. …

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