Special Report
School Climate & Safety

Stimulus Supercharges Energy Efficiency Efforts

By Sean Cavanagh — November 22, 2010 6 min read
Silver City Consolidated Schools, in New Mexico, got $357,500 under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to install a solar hot-water heating system and other energy-saving features. The solar equipment, shown atop the roof, supplies almost all the hot-water needs of the high school's campus, top, including the kitchen, showers, and lavatories.
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Until recently, the students and faculty at Silver High School counted on an old steam boiler to provide their building with hot water—and the district’s facilities staff counted on the 1960s-era equipment to break down, and waste energy.

“It was a hog. And a maintenance nightmare,” said Barry Ward, the facilities manager for the Silver Consolidated School District, in Silver City, N.M. “It was not efficient, and it was impossible to buy parts for it.”

When classes opened this fall, the hot-water relic had been replaced with a solar water-heating system, which is now mounted on the roof of the high school’s gymnasium. The vast majority of the $112,000 cost for that addition was paid for by the 2009 federal economic-stimulus program, which is supporting hundreds of millions of dollars worth of similar renewable-energy and energy-efficiency upgrades in school districts around the country.

Those projects are designed to transform and reduce energy consumption in the nation’s schools, through the addition of solar power and other sources of renewable energy, and to cut utility costs through energy efficiency. They’re also meant to build students’ and communities’ understanding of alternative power sources. To that end, teachers and administrators in many districts are incorporating their schools’ new energy features into classroom lessons.

The Silver Consolidated district, which has 3,000 students and sits more than a mile above sea level in the rugged, southwestern part of New Mexico, has used a total of $357,000 in stimulus funding to make a series of energy-efficiency upgrades, including the solar-powered water heater. Other changes included putting three school campuses on an automated energy-management system, which was already in place on other campuses.

The district pays about $450,000 in utility bills each year. The new energy installations could reduce those costs by 20 percent, estimates Mr. Ward, who notes that during a prolonged economic downturn, every penny counts.

“In this environment, that saves jobs,” he said.

Energy Department Boost

Others districts are making similar additions and retrofits. The U.S. Department of Energy is managing many of those projects through stimulus-backed efforts such as the $3 billion State Energy Program, which is devoting about $300 million to schools, as well as through a solar program focused on the nation’s cities, and through block grants for energy efficiency, a significant number of which are devoted to school projects, according to federal officials.

The stimulus aid, part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act approved by Congress nearly two years ago, will bring a number of energy benefits to schools and communities, said Gil Sperling, the senior adviser for policy and programs in the office of energy efficiency and renewable energy at the Energy Department. Along with creating jobs and cutting carbon emissions, the projects are intended to increase students’ understanding of energy use and the environmental and financial benefits of reducing power consumption.

Silver City Consolidated Schools, in New Mexico, got $357,500 under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to install a solar hot-water heating system and other energy-saving features. The solar equipment, shown in closeup, supplies almost all the hot-water needs of the high school's campus, top, including the kitchen, showers, and lavatories.

The Obama administration also hopes that the federal investment will encourage other districts to consider making their own renewable-energy efforts, to curb pollution and cut costs, Mr. Sperling said. While the savings for individual school systems varies by project, the prospect of receiving federal money that could bring immediate savings on utility bills appeals to districts, particularly given states’ and schools’ struggles to emerge from the recession.

“They obviously love the budget impact,” he said of schools.

In New Mexico, the flow of stimulus aid is overseen by the state’s office of recovery and reinvestment, led by executive director and former Democratic Gov. Toney Anaya. The federal stimulus act evokes mixed reactions from the public, which has been variously portrayed as either a justified, job-saving intervention or a big-government boondoggle. In promoting the recovery act around the state, Mr. Anaya says he hears clashing opinions, too, but not about school energy projects, where the response, he says, has been overwhelmingly favorable.

His office has set aside about $7 million for those school power efforts, and it received about twice as many applications as it could fund, Mr. Anaya estimates. He attributes some of the program’s popularity to New Mexicans’ familiarity and experience with renewable-energy projects, as well as schools’ need to trim costs.

“The demand is overwhelming from individual school districts,” he said. As far as what motivates them, “at the top of the list is future savings on utility bills.”

In other states, stimulus dollars are supporting broader energy-savings measures in schools. The Denver public schools, for instance, used favorable financing created by the stimulus act to issue $304 million in bonds to make major, energy-focused repairs and renovations, said David A. Suppes, the chief operating officer of the 78,000-student system. That work includes adding new lighting, installing energy-control systems, and replacing windows, roofs, and boilers, he said.

Classroom Lessons

Many schools nationwide are shaping curricula and lessons in science and other subjects around the stimulus-funded energy projects on their campuses.

Hillside Middle School, in Utah, used stimulus aid to build a 22-panel, 5-kilowatt solar array on its roof, with a power converter that ties into the building’s power grid. The power converter monitors the system’s energy production. Eventually, the school plans to feed that information to a website, where students can track it.

One of the teachers who plans to use the site and other aspects of the power system is Jeff Streba, who teaches career and technical education courses at the school, which is part of the 25,000-student Salt Lake City school district. Mr. Streba, who already discusses alternative energy in his 7th and 8th grade classes, says he hopes to use the system to lead students beyond general descriptions of the technology into specifics about how much power it can churn out, at what times.

“When you tell them, ‘It’s a 5-kilowatt system,’ it’s in one ear, out the other,” Mr. Streba said. But when you start talking about what that energy can produce—lighting rooms, powering computers—“that starts making sense,” he said. “A light goes on in their head.”

Hillside Middle School’s grant was awarded through the stimulus-financed Solar for Schools program, which is administered by the Utah State Energy Program. The $3 million effort is paying for the construction of 73 solar arrays around the state, with at least one solar array being placed in each of the state’s 41 school districts, said Elise Brown, the renewable-energy coordinator for the state energy program.

Those installations will save an estimated 8,000 tons of carbon dioxide from being released over 20 years, the equivalent to planting 11,000 trees and letting them grow for 10 years, the state says.

While the solar panels are expected to save each district about $600 a year in energy costs, the main focus of the school projects is educational, Ms. Brown said. All participating schools are required to have at least one teacher attend training sessions to gather ideas on how to integrate renewable-energy projects into classes of their choosing, such as science, math, or another subject. That training is being led by the National Energy Foundation, a nonprofit group in Salt Lake City that develops school materials focused on natural-resource and energy issues.

“It’s a great tool for teaching students how to incorporate renewable energy and recycling into their daily lives,” said Logan Hall, an assistant principal at Hillside Middle School. “It has a much bigger effect that way.”

Coverage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is supported in part by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at www.hewlett.org, and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, at www.mott.org.
A version of this article appeared in the December 01, 2010 edition of Education Week

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