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How Renewable Energy Is Rescuing Schools from Budget Cuts

Educators across the country are finding millions of dollars in savings through cheap and simple forms of renewable energy.

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Since that time, the district has hosted a pilot program that, for the first time, demonstrated the feasibility of geothermal power in Arizona. Another pilot used smart water sensors to cut outdoor water use, and was so successful that the cost of the sensors was recouped in less than three months. The district even won funding to build two “green schoolhouses.”

Including grants the district has won, Pierce concludes the district has saved more than $15 million.

And while the district’s commitment to environmental consciousness has never been stronger, Pierce thinks that broaching the issue as a financial concern, rather than an environmental one, was the smartest approach.

The school district initially adopted the changes “as a way to save money, to save jobs for teachers,” she said. “What started out as a way to save money for the district—and it has—has evolved into a commitment to sustainability.”

A Foundation Without a Footprint

While Washington Elementary School District and many others like it were just kicking off their energy programs in 2008, Richardsville Elementary and the rest of the Warren County School District were already five years ahead of the game.

The district had kicked off its district-wide energy campaign in 2003 under the direction of a forward-thinking superintendent, according to district Public Relations Coordinator Joanie Hendricks. The district was growing by about 400 students per year, and construction projects seemed to be always on the agenda.

So Warren County became one of the first districts in Kentucky to hire an energy manager and was able to save $560,499 in the first year by making small changes.

That first year of savings inspired the ambitious plans that came next, Hendrick said. “When you save half a million dollars in just changing your mindset, it just becomes a simple idea.”

Since 2003, the district has offset more than $7 million in energy costs. That equates to 45 teaching positions. It’s a number that really speaks to people.

“It makes you think twice when you’re going out the door to turn around and turn the light switch off,” Hendrick said, “when you know that could save somebody’s job.”

By the time Warren County decided to focus on greener schools, the architects at Sherman Carter Barnhart had been incorporating newer and greener materials in their plans for years.

“The perception is—and it’s not all wrong—is that it’s more costly, and we think if it’s done correctly it’s not really more costly,” Gayhart said. “I think the real ‘green’ is the dollars you can save the client in the life of the building. That’s the legacy you want.”

Learning Gets Greener

In 2005, Alvaton Elementary in Warren County opened using 36 kBtus of energy per square foot annually. That’s less than half the national average for schools, which is 73 kBtus. A few years later, Plano Elementary was using 28 kBtus, and today, Richardsville and two net zero-ready schools in the district use only 18 kBtus per square foot.

Net zero-ready schools have everything a net zero school has, minus the solar panels, which Richardsville was able to afford with the help of federal stimulus grants that have since run dry. Bardstown City Schools Finance Director Pat Hagan said although his district is implementing energy-saving measures, the up-front cost of solar doesn’t make financial sense right now.

Bardstown, situated in north central Kentucky, has two schools with geothermal systems.

“They’re a little more expensive to put in but you get your money back pretty quickly,” Hagan said.