Including Students in Your School’s Energy Program

11/23/2014  |  By Merrilee Harrigan

With schools nationwide spending nearly $8 billion on energy and with utility bills rising in many areas of the country, districts are understandably alarmed about the costs of literally keeping the lights on in schools. Unlike the number one expenditure — personnel costs — energy is one budget item that can be reduced without sacrificing educational quality and content. Energy efficiency cannot only solve budgetary issues, but benefits schools in numerous other ways. Of central importance is engaging the whole school, from faculty to students. Districts can, and many are, exploring the significant advantages of investing in energy efficiency education.

With a plethora of quality organizations offering performance contracts for retrofitting schools, it’s easy to overlook the obvious: the people who spend their days in schools have enormous control over energy consumption. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that at least 25 percent of all energy consumed in schools is wasted. The Alliance to Save Energy’s PowerSave Schools program data shows that schools can save between five and 15 percent through no-cost behavior change, resulting in thousands (or tens of thousands) of dollars saved. The key element is effective education that engages and trains students. Rarely do adults within a school know how much the school is spending on utilities, and this knowledge gap keeps faculty and staff from being proactive. Further, myths about energy consumption and outdated concepts about keeping schools appearing “warm and friendly” lead to behavior choices that are extremely inefficient.

While many districts offer training to school faculty and staff in energy efficiency best practices, students are often left out of the equation. Yet students represent the bulk of a school’s occupants, and they can benefit from understanding how their schools use and waste energy, and most importantly be effective, enthusiastic advocates for increased energy efficiency efforts. The challenge in both groups, adults and students, is that energy is invisible, and until energy efficiency behavior becomes habit it is often forgotten.

In the PowerSave Schools program, a baseline for energy expenses is established, usually from the year prior to the program. Monthly data is reported to a team of faculty, staff, and students; this information enables building occupants to see how much energy is being consumed, and to monitor the effectiveness of energy efficiency implementation. Students conduct energy audits of their schools; they provide recommendations for behavior change options to reduce energy consumption, and analyze billing data to establish the effectiveness of their recommendations and implementation. When students become aware of myths about energy, they can be effective leaders in correcting these misconceptions and outdated information. Students love to be the experts on a subject that most adults don’t know a lot about!

By analyzing how schools use energy, students can also prioritize areas of improvement.

With HVAC being the largest energy consumer in a school, many districts are turning to computerized systems to control heating and air conditioning set points, keeping them at 68 degrees during cooler months and 72-74 degrees during warmer months. Unoccupied set points are 60-62 during winter and 76-78 during summer. Every degree temperatures are reduced (increased in summer) results in approximately one percent savings.

Lighting represents the second highest energy consumer in schools. This is the true low-hanging fruit for behavior change opportunities, but is often thwarted by myths. Most common myths are:

  1. Turning off lights uses more energy than just leaving them on. While it is true that there is a small energy demand when overhead fluorescent lighting is first turned on, the surge is both tiny and short-lived. A rule of thumb is the 23 second rule: if a classroom will be unused for more than 23 seconds the benefits of turning off the lights balance the energy required to turn the lights back on.
  2. Natural daylight doesn’t make any difference and it’s distracting for students. According to studies the reverse is in fact true. In a report issued by the EPA, “According to a study for the California Board for Energy Efficiency, students exposed to natural daylight in classrooms progress as much as 20 percent faster on math tests and as much as 26 percent faster on reading tests than students with no daylight exposure.”
  3. Leaving lights on in a school building after hours increases security. In 2011, the FBI evaluated statistics provided by various police forces to examine when burglaries are most likely to occur and what role lighting played. While in homes, burglaries are more likely to happen during the day, in commercial buildings they would happen at night. The two common factors are one, people are unlikely to be present, and two, lighting is bright. The data revealed conclusively that commercial break-ins were less likely to occur in buildings without lights left on; conversely, lights on at night increases the security risk.

Energy Education Benefits Students

A school-based energy efficiency program can capture students’ interest in environmental concerns, and in so doing inspire students to learn while helping the school reduce energy costs. Students can take on leadership roles as they partner with faculty and staff to achieve energy savings, increasing students’ confidence and enthusiasm for solving a real world issue in their school. Studies have shown that there is a general lack of energy-related knowledge and awareness among U.S. students.

Current educational practices in energy education don’t appear to be sufficient to generate responsible and effective future energy consumers. In a 2011 energy literacy study conducted on New York State middle and high school students, “energy literacy levels among secondary students ... are discouragingly low ... indicting a downward shift in energy conservation behaviors despite an increase in cognitive knowledge and skills. These results emphasize the need for improved energy education programs in the public school, with broader coverage of topics related to current events and practical issues, such as the way we use energy in everyday life.” The study further indicated that students sincerely believe that energy efficiency can help numerous environmental issues; furthermore, the majority of students believed that they could contribute to solving energy problems by making appropriate energy-related choices and actions. They simply don’t have sufficient information or engagement on energy to generate these solutions.

Students can become tremendous assets to school districts’ energy savings policies. PowerSave Schools’ students use diagnostic tools and engage in project-based learning to collect and analyze data, identify energy problems within their schools, and are empowered to propose practical solutions to achieve substantial energy savings. Not only do these students increase their energy literacy, but they are excited to be able to monitor their school’s energy consumption and be an active part of the school’s energy reduction campaign. Some examples of best practices are:

  1. Student energy audits in Washington, D.C. reveal the causes of overheated classrooms, and students’ prompt actions to insulate heating supply pipes.
  2. Students in North Penn conceived of and participated in a PowerSave Day, resulting in one-day energy reductions of 22 percent, and overall annual reductions of 25 percent, saving 5.7 million kW.
  3. Students in Hesperia, Calif. make energy efficiency recommendations that become district-wide policy.
  4. Memphis high school students educate their neighbors about efficiency opportunities and replace incandescent bulbs with free energy efficient light bulbs.

District Investment Into Energy Efficiency Programming

Adding any additional programming to schools should always be thoroughly considered. In the case of energy efficiency, it can be a wise investment. Districts with PowerSave Schools programs are encouraged to incentivize schools by offering a return on the dollars saved through no-cost behavior changes. This generates total school buy-in from administration, faculty, and staff, and often these undesignated funds are used to further energy savings by providing useful devices such as additional surge protectors, LED/CFL lighting for desk lamps, or occupancy sensors for hallways.

Energy efficiency education not only saves the districts significant costs, but also enhances student STEM learning. Energy consumption myths are de-bunked, adult no-cost behavior change is encouraged, and students are empowered to consider real-world solutions to growing energy concerns and test those solutions by using their schools as learning laboratories. Most importantly, energy efficiency education generates a powerful, educated energy consumer of the future. Current educational standards are not enough; energy efficiency educational programs are dollar-wise and education-wise opportunities for all school districts.

Merrilee Harrigan is the Senior Advisor, Education, for the Alliance to Save Energy. For more information visit

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