Simple yellow Post-it notes with the message “When not in use, turn off the juice,” pointedly left on classroom computers, printers and air-conditioners, have helped the Mount Sinai School District on Long Island save $350,000 annually on utility bills.
Energy consumption in New York City’s 1,245 school buildings is down roughly 11 percent since 2008, as motion detectors have been installed on classroom lights and unused refrigerators and freezers have been unplugged for the summer.
In Yonkers, energy savings have financed $18 million in new boilers, windows and other capital improvements that the Westchester County district could not otherwise afford.
Schools, once known as energy wasters, are embracing conservation in increasing numbers. A desire to practice the environmentally friendly principles discussed in classrooms has been heightened by soaring energy costs and tighter budgets. With the help of a growing industry of energy consultants, school officials are evaluating every detail of their daily operations, like the temperature of the swimming pool and the amount of electricity the cafeteria ovens use, and are replacing energy-guzzling equipment with more efficient models.
Supporters say that even small adjustments can pay off almost immediately. “If we tested schools in efficient use of energy, many of them wouldn’t get a passing grade,” said C. David Myers, president of building efficiency for Johnson Controls, which has joined with 60 of the 125 school districts on Long Island to reduce energy use by 20 to 40 percent annually.
Nationally, more than two dozen states, including California, Idaho, Kentucky, Montana, New Hampshire and Virginia, have used millions in federal stimulus money since 2009 to pay for energy programs and upgrades in school buildings, said Judy Marks, director of the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities in Washington. These efforts include replacing light fixtures, adding solar panels and building geothermal heating and cooling systems.
Some states have also started programs to finance school conservation efforts and to create local contracting jobs. Most recently, Oregon passed legislation in June to provide school districts with low-interest loans and grants for school efficiency improvements; Washington State started a similar grant-based program in 2009.
In some instances, districts like Mount Sinai have appointed an official energy manager — in its case, Chris Heil, an assistant high school principal — to police hallways and classrooms to root out energy waste. Armed with yellow notes, he inspects 100 classrooms a day and “tickets” violators. Teachers have been known to run back to their classrooms when they see him coming. When one instructor refused to shut down his classroom computers at night, Mr. Heil sent him an e-mail calculating how much money was being wasted, and promised to share the next message with the superintendent.
“I’m kind of like the cop who walks around and makes sure people are doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” Mr. Heil said. “As soon as you take me away, people will start their bad habits again.”
Mr. Heil sometimes shows up at schools at 4 a.m. to make sure the custodial staff remembered to turn off the lights. He has rummaged through storage closets to locate switches to shut down rooftop exhaust fans that ran nonstop. Such vigilance has reduced the district’s utility costs by 30 percent since 2007, Mr. Heil said.
As part of the Bloomberg administration’s campaign to reduce the municipal government’s energy consumption and carbon emissions by 30 percent by 2017, the city awarded $100,000 in May to schools that voluntarily decreased their energy use in a monthlong competition. Martin Luther King Jr. Educational Campus in Manhattan won top honors with a 35 percent reduction. And this fall, rooftop solar panels are being installed on three school buildings.
“We’re focused on energy reduction like crazy,” said Dennis M. Walcott, the city’s schools chancellor, who regularly checks on schools that he sees lighted up at night.
Many districts across the country have financed conservation efforts through so-called energy performance contracts with companies that advise them on how to be more energy-efficient and guarantee them specific savings, either in dollars or kilowatts. If the district’s actual savings fall short, the company writes a check to make up the difference.
With contracts involving equipment investments — which can be $50,000 to tens of millions of dollars, depending on the scope of the projects — districts typically use existing utility budgets or borrow money through third-party lenders, and then pay it back out of their immediate energy savings so that no budget increase is needed.
In Yonkers, the improvements included replacing Lincoln High School’s 60-year-old boilers, which guzzled 137,500 gallons of heating oil a year — “so much fuel that it seemed like we had oil trucks parked out front,” said John Carr, the executive director of school facilities in Yonkers. The new boilers burn only 80,000 gallons.
Three consultants — Johnson Controls, Trane and Energy Education Inc. — have reported that their school business has grown by at least a third since 2006. The companies send in engineers and specialists to conduct extensive audits of each district — Energy Education uses a checklist of 1,200 items — and then custom-design conservation programs. “Anything that consumes energy, natural gas or water is going to get evaluated,” said Larry Wash, Trane’s president of global services.
In New Jersey, the schools in Holmdel Township have lowered their electric and gas bills by about half since 2009, to $1 million annually. In environmental terms, that breaks down to 3.5 million fewer kilowatts of power and 240,000 fewer therms of heat a year.
William Balicki, Holmdel’s energy manager, said he kept a tight check on thermostats, and installed automatic timers on outdoor lights in bus yards and parking lots that once stayed on long after the drivers left.
Mr. Balicki also considered placing motion sensors on classroom lights, but instead settled for $75 worth of stickers to post above light switches as a reminder to flip them off.
“Anytime we can ask people to physically do it, we do,” he said. “This is pretty much a people-based program. It’s changing behavior.”
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