Celebrating Energy-Efficient Holidays, Green Schools Style

While  students across the United States were enjoying their winter breaks, participants in the Alliance’s Green Schools Program were saving their schools from being energy “Grinches” by completely shutting down their empty buildings. According to results from the Alliance’s Green Schools Program, schools that fully prepare their buildings for their winter breaks waste significantly less electricity – and are rewarded with smaller electricity bills than schools that only shut down the most visible energy-consuming systems.

The Green Schools Program, which empowers student Green Teams to change energy-consuming behaviors at their schools, has been helping school districts save on energy costs nationwide since 1996. In partnership with the Alliance and local power distributor Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the Green Schools Program started in Tennessee in the 2009-2010 school year among 21 schools; many of those schools continued participating in the program in the 2010-2011 school year.

Green Schools Drastically Reduces Energy Use

The TVA Green Schools employ many energy efficiency measures, but their complete Thanksgiving shutdown contributed to an average 10 percent decrease in energy use in November 2009 compared with November 2008.

One school in experienced particularly large savings: Fall Branch Elementary School reduced its energy consumption by 24 percent in November 2009 compared with November 2008, according to TVA-Green Schools energy tracker John Cook.  Their secret? A complete Thanksgiving break shutdown that follows three simple rules:

  1. Turn it off (lights and computers),
  2. Turn it down (reduce temperature set-points), and
  3. Unplug it (all appliances).

What to Look for in a Shutdown

In a proper shut-down, faculty and staff spend the last afternoon before break – when students are out of the building – unplugging all energy-consuming equipment to avoid vampire energy loads, and turning off items that cannot be unplugged. At schools in Knox County, Tenn., faculty and staff unplug and turn off items that other schools might not touch, including:

  • HVAC equipment, lights and computers
  • computer monitors
  • gym scoreboards
  • clock radios
  • VCRs and DVD players
  • empty refrigerators and freezers
  • phone chargers
  • exhaust fans
  • desk lamps
  • miscellaneous lights in bathrooms and closets

The list for a complete shutdown is comprehensive and involves more time than simply flipping switches. For instance, appliances such as refrigerators must be cleaned out before getting unplugged, thermostats must be lowered across the building, and HVAC systems must be cleared of clutter.

These complete shutdowns save more money during the winter breaks than in the summer, according to Zane Foraker, the Knox County Public School System’s energy manager for all 89 county schools.; “Most people dwell on the hot days of late August as they think about when schools must use the most energy,” Foraker said. “For the Knox County schools, the winter heating load far exceeds the summer cooling load.”Knox County schools’ utility costs are much higher in December and January than in August, so their schools save even more money by turning off, turning down and unplugging during the winter breaks than during the summer.

Green Schools’ Approach to Shutdowns

At the same time that student Green Teams at Green Schools unplug energy “vampires,” they also dress up as holiday figures and compose seasonal songs about energy efficiency to bring the informative and entertaining message of energy efficiency to their classmates.

Many schools choose a more personal approach. One student Green Team made holiday cards that included shutdown information for every faculty and staff member. Another attached candy to printed notes to help “sweeten” the deal.

Meanwhile on the West Coast, Chino Unified School District in Southern California promoted a district-wide challenge called “Turn off the Juice!” over the week-long Thanksgiving holiday. All district schools participated in the second annual challenge, which reduced energy use by 47 percent and saved the district $24,000 in energy costs compared to their 2009 Thanksgiving break.  The district promotes the same shutdown challenge over winter and spring breaks.

The schools that have achieved the greatest seasonal successes conducted energy assessments of their schools, as well as presented the math and science data on school building energy consumption to their student body and staff. Once students and staff understand how much energy they consume, Green Teams often are more successful at implementing energy-saving measures. While school system employees such as facilities managers or energy managers work to set up holiday energy-saving requirements, the Green Schools Program helps students put those requirements into practice.

Following the Shutdown

Green Schools students and teachers, like those at Fall Branch, agree that the energy costs savings are worth every second spent to prepare the building for school breaks. “Not only did we save our system a lot of money, the student Green Team felt really good about their efforts to educate faculty and staff,” said Marcia Jennings, a fourth grade teacher at Fall Branch.

“If used properly, the winter break can be a two-week opportunity to make up for the negative effects of extreme weather on utility bills and help school systems balance the utility budget,” Foraker added.

The test of Green Schools’ energy saving measures will come in January 2011, when all 81 of the 2010-2011 TVA Green Schools and other Green Schools across the country see their energy bills. At that time, the schools will receive the best holiday gift of all: a reduction in energy consumption and money saved.