Rising Natural Gas Prices Threaten to Bust School Budgets - But Energy Efficiency Provides Solution, Says Alliance to Save Energy

Release Date: Friday, August 15, 2003

(Editor’s Note: The Alliance to Save Energy has Green Schools Programs in California Maryland, and Pennsylvania.)

When kids go back to school this fall, will they see fewer teachers and bigger classes? Will their libraries lack new books? Such scenarios could materialize, further battering already-pinched school budgets, as higher natural gas prices inflate school heating costs. Electricity bills could be higher too. Natural gas – the cleanest-burning fossil fuel – powers a growing number of electric power plants.

Schools are no strangers to budget shortfalls. Still, the natural gas situation may have caught them off-guard. As the lazy days of summer began, the news came out that natural gas production had declined, tight supplies could continue for up to 18 months, and July prices were nearly 60 percent higher than last year’s.

When energy prices go haywire, school districts have a tough time predicting spending – with budget-wide ramifications – because energy is the second largest expense for the nation’s schools. For nearly 75 percent of U.S. schools districts, future energy costs pose a major threat to essential areas, including instruction, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, which adds that 61 percent of U.S. public school districts overspent energy budgets in 2001.

To cope with budget cuts, the National School Board Association reports, many districts are eliminating essentials – programs, teachers – and reducing supplies, field trips, and activities. Others have cut back to four-day weeks or shorter school years.

Fortunately, there is an alternative to painful program and personnel cuts. “It’s energy efficiency – the quickest, cleanest, cheapest way to save both energy and money, while keeping classrooms comfortable in all seasons,” says Merrilee Harrigan, who manages the Alliance to Save Energy’s Green Schools Program.

Energy efficiency is the lesson taught by Green Schools, a multi-disciplinary, hands-on program that helps schools integrate energy into K-12 curricula and engages students, teachers, and facility managers in energy-saving projects.

Green Schools promotes changes in behavior, operations, and maintenance to yield yearly school energy cost savings up to $35,000. Green Schools recommends investing in cost-effective retrofits, too, to increase savings and return monies for classroom needs. Meanwhile, every school can harness “student and staff energy” to provide immediate energy cost savings.

“With 38 to 70 percent of school energy costs going for heating buildings and hot water, there is great potential for savings,” Harrigan says. “Students can investigate how their schools use and waste energy and really get into reducing that waste. And teachers love the fact that these hands-on, real-world activities spark greater student interest in learning math, science, and communication skills.

“Some California students used diagnostic tools to discover blocked heating ducts. Fixing them, and various no-cost measures, made classrooms more comfortable and cut energy costs 10 percent,” Harrigan says. “The students shared what they learned with the school board, to stimulate interest in additional energy efficiency measures.”

These Alliance tips will help schools save energy and money; most are activities that students can help implement:

  • Keep heating and cooling vents free of blockages.
  • Keep classroom doors and windows closed while heating and/or air conditioning systems are running.
  • Close curtains and blinds at night. Open in daytime for solar heating.
  • Make sure faucets are turned off.
  • Clean or periodically replace heating/cooling system filters.
  • Seal air leaks around doors and windows.
  • Fix leaks.
  • Lower thermostat on weekends if possible; a 10 degree reduction can save up to 5 percent in energy costs.
  • To save on electricity, turn off lights and computers when not in use.
  • Keep after-school activities in one area to reduce heating/cooling costs.

For more information, school energy-saving tips, see www.ase.org/greenschools.