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U.S. school districts need a course in Energy Efficiency 101

Posting in Education

Communities all across the country should take a much closer look at the energy efficiency equation when making budget cuts.

As I was scrounging about looking for something relevant and meaningful to post for the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, I stumbled across some information from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency about the 2009-2010 College and University Green Power Challenge.

In case you know nothing about the various Green Power Partner competitions and recognition initiatives, the program highlights businesses, schools and other organizations that have made some practical, concerted effort to import their energy efficiency and embrace alternative power sources.

The college and university version of the Green Power Challenge has been dominated for the past four years by the University of Pennsylvania, which sources almost half of its energy (46 percent) from green sources. That’s more than 192 kilowatt hours of power. And, in fact, the University of Pennsylvania has won the challenge for four years running, now.

If you want to get all competitive about it, the Ivy League schools logged the most use of green power: in total, they use more than 225 kilowatt hours of green power. In all, 54 universities participated, collectively accounting for green power usage of 1 billion kilowatt hours. The EPA calculates this as the carbon dioxide emissions reduction equivalent of taking nearly 160 vehicles off the road.

Now, the university list may be the most recent Green Power Partner ranking published, but it reminded me of one that could be even more imperative and important moving forward, the list showing how K-12 schools are doing with similar initiatives.

I've been thinking a lot about this list lately, given the big fights about education going on in my own home state, New Jersey. Even if you live as far away as the west coast, you’ve probably heard about our budget woes and the big fight going on between the new Governor Christie, who dramatically and rather abruptly cut off the much of the state’s financial aid to the educational system, and the state teacher’s union, which has been sadly recalcitrant about the issue of salary increases.

I'm not going to get into the politics, but as administrators and boards of educations engage in serious cost-cutting exercises, I strongly urge them to consider how rethinking their energy policies could save them money. I've personally talked to several schools about the very positive impact that attention to energy efficiency can have on their financial position. It boggles me that I don't hear more about this in my own community. It is such a logical no-brainer. Here are some pointers to those stories to refresh your memory about what's to be saved:

Here in New Jersey, there is some positive news. In March, residents of Lumberton, N.J., passed (by a 72 percent margin) a $9.5 million referendum to install solar panels on four of the district's school buildings. A similar measure failed in December 2008. According to the material prepared by the district, the conversion could cut annual energy bills by $261,309. May not seem like a lot of money, but sounds like several teachers positions to me.

So, how about it. It's Earth Day, which is kind of like New Year's Day for environmental resolutions. Instead of whining about your community's school budget, why not start asking some real questions about what your board of education is doing about energy consumption. It could make the difference between keeping certain classes or sticking students in study hall.

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Heather Clancy

Section Editor

Heather Clancy has written for United Press International, ZDNet, Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. She holds a degree from McGill University. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure