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Schools pull plug on excess energy use
Green efforts help systems save money during tough times
Eighth-grader Justin Muldowney, 14, turns the thermostat down inside a classroom Thursday as he demonstrates one of the energy-saving initiatives Lakeview Academy has adopted. The school also has turned off lights in classrooms and hallways in an attempt to cut energy use. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Rising energy costs coupled with lagging revenues have local schools going green to save green.

Green campaigns at Lakeview Academy, Hall County and Gainesville schools urge students and teachers to turn off lights, unplug computers and turn down thermostats.

Since the Gainesville school system began its green campaign in November, Superintendent Merrianne Dyer said the school system has saved about $11,000 on energy expenses, nearly enough to augment the system's state funds for the pre-kindergarten program.

"For us to save that much from November to December to January is huge, because it's the winter and it's cold. I was impressed," Dyer said. "It's part of our bigger effort of cost savings."

Gainesville's system, like others statewide, faces a 3 percent state budget cut next year. The district also is working to pay off an estimated $5.8 million deficit. Dyer said the energy cost savings will help pay $1.8 million toward that debt this year.

It's not always easy being green, Dyer said, but it's worth it. Budget cuts could jeopardize some employees' jobs.

"Every time we get discouraged, we just keep thinking every bit we save can help save someone's job next year," she said.

Dyer said the school system joined with Energy Education, a company that teaches educators and companies how to run a greener business. Energy Education also provides technical resources to monitor energy consumption and measure progress in reducing its use. For example, the company helped Gainesville schools reduce lighting costs by determining where lighting wasn't needed.

David Shumake, assistant superintendent for instruction for Gainesville schools, said he is often accompanied by Energy Education's conservation specialist as he makes the rounds at nights and on weekends to ensure all lights and appliances are off. He received intense training from Energy Education on how to analyze utility bills and find more ways to save on the system's annual $1.2 million energy costs.

"We will make hundreds of adjustments, going through the entire system to make sure that we use only the energy we need," Shumake wrote in an e-mail.

Larry West, energy manager for Hall County schools, said the system has been taking the green approach for 10 years. West estimates energy savings of more than $10 million in that time.

West said the system audits all utility bills and facilities to find which schools are using too much energy. He then hones in on consumption at the schools to fix lighting, water, electrical or sewer issues to lower expenses.

Like Dyer, West said county schools save the most money by keeping classes a little cooler in the winter, a little warmer in the spring. Dyer said the standard is to set thermostats to 68 degrees in winter and 75 degrees in warm weather.

Both the city and county systems have designated employees to scour schools nights and weekends to see that computers and lights are off and thermostats are in conservation mode. West said the county saves about 70 to 80 percent on energy costs in winter and during summer breaks and holidays.

He said it's not uncommon for a teacher to see a note Monday morning: "Oops! You left a computer on this weekend."

West said the system does all it can to reduce its annual $3.5 million energy bill. The technology department is devising a way to shut down computers remotely.

"We can get more in the classroom by saving more on utilities," West said. "... The core thing is to have people change their habits. We've gotten so used to leaving the lights on. But now everybody's a little bit more mindful of saving energy."

Lakeview Academy students are taking matters into their own hands. Five students form the Gainesville private school's "Green Team," which aims to win the five-week long Green Cup Challenge against 30 other schools in Georgia.

Debra Zwald, Lakeview's faculty sponsor for the challenge, said the school ranks second after beginning the challenge two weeks ago. Compared to last year's energy use over the same two weeks, the school has cut consumption by nearly 12 percent.

"It was more of a conservation effort to save resources, but saving money isn't bad either," Zwald said.

"The kids are doing most of the work, reminding their teachers to turn off their lights or the projector when they're done," she said. "... We're hoping the kids will take this home and do this in the community and it will spread."

Bay Nixon, a Lakeview Academy junior and Green Team member, said she doesn't mind walking down slightly darker hallways or unplugging her computer when she's finished.

"A lot of students don't actually realize the importance of conserving. They think resources are going to last forever," Nixon said. "And I want to tell kids that it's important to conserve our resources. They're not going to last forever."