Anthony Wright knows well how summer heat in Memphis, Tenn., can zap life out of even the hardiest souls, including the roughly 107,000 students and faculty who begin filling the city's roughly 7,200 classrooms each year in early August.
As Memphis City Schools' coordinator for energy management and conservation, Wright also knows what the heat does to his district's bottom line, sucking tens of millions of dollars annually to keep buildings cool for up to 250 days a year.
"We're pretty generous with our comfort when the students are there," said Wright, who in his first week of the fall semester had to contend with outdoor temperatures of 92 to 98 degrees Fahrenheit.
But as late afternoon rolls toward evening and school buildings empty out, Wright turns from cooling manager into energy miser, turning up thermostats, shutting down unessential lights and sealing off areas that require precise temperature controls from rooms that can stand an overnight warmup.
Often the next morning, he pores over the previous day's energy use, plugging data gleaned from real-time energy meters into a software program called the "Energy Star Portfolio Manager" that allows him to track every kilowatt-hour of electricity used across the entire school district.
"For every degree [of thermostat adjustment], it's like a 2 percent savings," Wright said. "And when you're counting every percentage point, and even tenths of percentage points, the savings add up pretty fast."
The $8B challenge
Squeezed by shrinking budgets, rising energy costs and aging infrastructure, America's schools are coming up with creative ways to squeeze every kilowatt and British thermal unit out of aging, often inefficient buildings that literally form the backbone of the U.S. education system.
Their challenge is significant. In 2008, the Energy Department estimated that the nation's 93,000 K-12 schools spend $8 billion annually on energy, second only to teacher salaries and more than was spent nationwide on classroom books, supplies and equipment.
"Rising energy costs, coupled with declining property tax revenues, are increasing budgetary pressures on schools," DOE said in conjunction with the 2008 publication of its "Guide to Financing EnergySmart Schools." "These challenges make energy-saving strategies a real opportunity for schools undertaking new facilities construction and major renovations."
But where school construction in the United States before the Great Recession was a $20 billion enterprise -- with fast-growing suburbs and even some urban districts building new classrooms -- today there is a shrinking public appetite and even less taxpayer revenue to underwrite major school expansions.
According to the "2012 Annual School Construction Report," published by School Planning and Management magazine, "The demand for school space and improved facilities has not lessened -- the number of children schools serve continues to rise -- but, as a consequence of the 2008 recession, combined with the anti-tax sentiment it spawned, the money has dried up."
Some low-cost ways to start
As a result, schools and school districts -- often in conjunction with foundations, electric utilities and private-sector energy innovators -- are looking at ways to make existing buildings perform better. Such efforts are often channeled through retrofits of old, inefficient boilers, air conditioners and lighting systems, or by simply recalibrating existing energy-consuming systems to make them work better and more cheaply.
According to the Alliance to Save Energy, which helps schools achieve efficiency, many buildings can cut their electricity consumption by 5 to 15 percent without spending any money on new lighting, heating or air conditioning. The key, the alliance says, is interventions that change the way students, faculty and school administrators view and use energy.
"We've been hampered by so long by the invisibility of energy and how hard it is to get a handle on how much we're using, whether at home or work or school," said Merrilee Harrigan, the alliance's vice president of education in Washington, D.C. "Now, if we put diagnostic tools in kids' hands and let them learn how to do an energy audit and then drive school activities based on a no-additional-cost model, we're finding that schools can become highly efficient buildings."
Schools that go beyond tapping up thermostats and conducting "lights out" campaigns to invest in technologies like the federal government's Energy Star Portfolio Manager software can cut energy costs by as much as 30 percent, Harrigan said. "Even with constrained budgets, people are finding ways to use energy better."
Such approaches are taking root in urban districts like Memphis and Washington, D.C., where energy managers and students are learning new ways to assess, monitor and reduce energy consumption. They're also catching on in suburbs like the North Penn School District outside Philadelphia, where energy use plummeted by 25 percent in one year due to student-driven conservation efforts, and Gresham-Barlow School District in suburban Portland, Ore., where 14 of the district's 19 schools achieved Energy Star ratings of 90 or above.
In outlying districts, like central Michigan's Ovid-Elsie Area Schools, plans are under way to upgrade four schools and the district's administration building with energy-efficient lighting, high-efficiency boilers, better insulation and a new automation system to better manage and track energy use. The improvements, funded with a $1.1 million Energy Savings Performance Contract, are expected to net $85,000 in annual energy savings. A significant portion of those savings will come back to the school in cash to pay off the initial investment.
"During these tough economic times, it was helpful to use avoided energy expenses rather than the schools' capital to fund necessary building improvements," Ryan Cunningham, the Ovid-Elsie Area Schools' superintendent, said in a statement last week announcing the energy savings contract with Ameresco Inc. of Framingham, Mass.
Powering buildings when nobody's there
For school systems looking to achieve similar energy efficiency gains with lower capital costs, experts point to the North Penn School District, based in Montgomery County, Pa., one of the largest districts in the state with nearly 13,000 students spread across 17 school buildings.
Last fiscal year, the district shaved its energy consumption by 25 percent by recalibrating its schools' lighting, cooling, heating and other systems to work only when needed and not a minute more. That, coupled with a concerted effort by students, faculty and administrators to only use the energy necessary to do their work, cut bills by $895,000.
"I'm real proud of my school," Thomas Schneider, the district's manager of energy and operational efficiencies, said in an interview.
Schneider, an engineer who spent years in the private sector as a construction manager and designer of K-12 schools and other infrastructure projects, said the primary obstacle to shrinking a school system's energy footprint is not student reluctance. In fact, he said, "if you can get the passionate energy of the student body behind you, there's no limit to where you can take it."
More than students, he said, it is the school systems' "engineers and the wrench-turners," many of whom are trained to adhere to local building codes rather than achieve operational efficiencies, who need to change their thinking.
For example, schools' maintenance and operations protocols, often dating to the 1970s, usually require school buildings to be managed like sealed envelopes, where temperature and lighting demands are presumed to be constant rather than fluctuating with days, seasons or even the school year.
Under a new approach -- and usually aided by advanced systems control technology -- lights, air conditioners, boilers and other energy-hungry equipment can be turned on and off based strictly on a building's user needs and occupancy.
"School is in session 185 days out of 365 days, so about 50 percent of the year. And we're operating 10 to 12 hours out of the day," Schneider explained. "If you can ensure that your essential equipment shuts off when nobody's there, it makes a huge impact."
Equipping students to tackle the problem
Where engineering and mechanical solutions aren't enough, students are stepping up to squeeze even more energy savings out of school buildings, experts say, often with the aid of smart meters and "dashboard" technology that allow students and teachers to convert school buildings into real-world energy laboratories.
In Memphis, the district joined the Alliance to Save Energy's Green Schools affiliate program in April 2011, expanding on a pilot project that had gained support from the Tennessee Valley Authority and local utility Memphis Light, Gas and Water. The program brought focused attention to the schools' energy challenges and pledged to reduce energy consumption by 5 to 10 percent year over year.
The program also unleashed an army of energy auditors as Memphis youngsters canvassed school grounds, measuring every piece of energy-consumptive equipment -- from industrial boilers to vending machines -- looking for ways to curb energy demand and maximize efficiency.
In 11 months, Memphis City Schools cut systemwide electricity consumption by nearly 8 percent, racking up an estimated $2 million in avoided energy costs. "Energy efficiency is not rocket science," Wright said of the program. "It's just about turning it off and turning it down.
"I know we'll eventually get to the point where all the low-hanging fruit is gone, and some additional investment will have to be made" in replacement systems, he added. "But right now I celebrate every percentage-point improvement that we're getting."
What does the 'dashboard' say?
The Memphis program has also benefited from the participation of firms like EnerNoc Inc. of Boston and New Energy Technology of Grand Junction, Colo., which have invested millions of dollars to bring smart grid technologies to the education sector.
EnerNoc, which had previously provided demand-response services to Memphis City Schools through TVA, increased its involvement with the district last August by placing energy monitoring equipment in 25 schools to allow facilities managers and students access to real-time information about energy consumption and costs. Within a month of the launch of the monitoring program, EnerNoc engineers had flagged school building inefficiencies and system overrides that would have added $180,000 annually in energy costs had they not been corrected.
At the same time, equipment provided by another firm, New Energy Technology, is helping to put EnerNoc's real-time data into the hands of students and administrators via an online energy center, or "dashboard," that provides straightforward information and analysis for how the district is faring in meeting its energy efficiency goals.
Matt Plante, EnerNoc's vice president of energy efficiency sales, said in an interview that real-time energy monitoring has become increasingly popular with school systems, especially as lessons are shared from district to district and state to state about how wasted energy can be converted into real dollars.
"It helps them very directly through reductions in their utility bills," said Plante, whose company now works with 170 school systems nationwide and maintains an energy consumption database for nearly 1,000 school buildings.