Building energy-
efficient schools:
Help cut carbon
and costs

Author: Katie McNeil

The biggest budget item for most of the nation’s 130,000 K-12 schools? Salaries. The second? Keeping the lights on. U.S. government estimates indicate that districts spend at least $8 billion annually on utility bills, while as much as 30% of a district’s total energy is used inefficiently or unnecessarily. Energy-efficient schools, therefore, have the potential to not only significantly reduce schools' environmental impact but also offer budget benefits for districts.

The American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2021 Infrastructure Report Card rated school buildings as a D+. The report found 53% of schools need to replace their heating, venting and air-conditioning systems, while 29% of energy management systems were in fair or poor condition.

At the same time, innovative districts are tackling the urgent challenge of sustainability. With new federal funding to rebuild America’s schools, administrators can plan for long-term investments in energy efficiency to lower utility bills and reinvest money into what matters most: student learning.

The benefits of energy-efficient schools

By installing new lighting systems, purchasing more efficient office equipment, upgrading boilers or retrofitting central plant systems, energy-efficient school buildings can save districts millions. San Diego Unified School District, the nation’s 8th largest, has saved $90 million over the last 12 years from its sustainability measures.

K-12 schools that implement energy-saving measures can help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It’s estimated that school facilities emit about 72 million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year—the equivalent of 18 coal-fired power plants or 8.6 million homes. Sustainability efforts at one Pennsylvania district lowered their carbon footprint by 7,000 metric tons, which is the equivalent to the annual emissions of 1,300 cars.

Benefits to the planet also translate to students. Energy-saving actions offer an important teaching opportunity to combat climate change for a generation likely to be more affected by it. Facility upgrades to energy-efficient school buildings can also have other impacts, such as:

  • Remedy air quality issues
  • Improve comfort and health conditions
  • Support better student learning

Studies have shown a correlation between infrastructure and student (and teacher) performance. Poor ventilation from outdated HVAC systems can cause negative impacts to student health, including asthma, headaches, and fatigue, which contribute to lowered concentration and increased absenteeism.

Barriers to energy-efficient school buildings

Costly upgrades and retrofitting may prevent many schools from implementing energy-efficient measures. The funding of public schools—largely a local, taxpayer responsibility—means that the lower-income neighborhoods that stand to benefit the most from building upgrades are the same districts with limited budgets.

Government initiatives are seeking to reduce upfront costs for the creation of energy-efficient schools. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, American Rescue Plan Act, and 2021 Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act provide tens of billions of dollars in new funding to U.S. K-12 public schools for facility and transportation improvements. Over the next 10 years, the Reopen and Rebuild America's Schools Act will send $130 billion into schools for infrastructure improvements.

The good news—every dollar saved from inefficient energy consumption is another dollar toward upgrades to enhance the learning environment and improve student learning.

Other ways to drive costs down

It’s not just buildings where energy-efficient schools can make inroads. School buses travel about four billion miles each year, providing transportation to and from school for more than 25 million American children every day. Recent estimates suggest only about one percent of the almost half a million school buses are electric. Estimates suggest fully converting all school buses from diesel to electric would reduce carbon emissions by over 5 million tons, or the equivalent of removing one million cars from the road.

Electric buses can cost double the price of a diesel bus, but the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provided $5 billion in funding for decarbonization of the nation’s school bus fleet. Experts suggest school buses have other advantages. They charge at night, when demand for electricity is lower, and operate a predictable route that allows for efficient planning and eliminates the concern that a charge won’t last the distance, also known as range anxiety.

How to save energy at school—starting today

Large-scale infrastructure improvements are not the only way K-12 schools can start today to make small behavioral changes to reduce their energy needs.

Immediate ways to save energy at school

  • Turn off lights when not in use or install sensor-based lighting
  • Switch traditional lighting to more efficient LED lighting
  • Replace old office equipment with more power-efficient pieces
  • Close classroom doors to maintain room temperature
  • Form student “green teams” to encourage energy saving
  • Track your school’s energy use with the EPA’s free online tool, ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager

Long-term actions for energy-efficient schools

  • Upgrade insulation to reduce heat loss
  • Upgrade HVAC systems and set controls for occupied hours
  • Install energy-efficient windows
  • Use IoT technologies to enable smart buildings that help to minimize energy consumption and anticipate faults and minor incidents
  • Closely manage school bus fleets to reduce idling and fuel consumption
  • Choose network providers who are prioritizing sustainability and setting clear goals for carbon neutrality

Sustainability is no longer “nice to have.” It’s a critical part of any business decision. School districts can lead the nation in solving the climate crisis with energy-efficient schools. By doing so, they offer a promising future to the next generation.

Learn more about how Verizon’s networks and connected solutions can help schools save energy while transforming learning experiences.

The author of this content is a paid contributor for Verizon.