After a little figuring, Henry Clay High School officials concluded recently that they could save about $2,000 a year on electricity — and still meet state lighting requirements — by following a consulting firm's suggestion to simply unscrew one fluorescent bulb in each lighting unit in many school hallways.
"We could be putting money back into the education general fund, basically by doing nothing," said Associate Principal Lester Dias.
Henry Clay also is considering other steps, such as unplugging all unneeded electrical devices over summer break, shutting down the school's 800 or so computers at 6 p.m. instead of 7 p.m. each school day, reducing heating and cooling settings, and turning off all unneeded corridor lights in the evenings. The ideas were offered by CMTA, a consulting firm hired by the school district to conduct an "energy audit" at Henry Clay.
It's all part of Fayette County Public Schools' new sustainability initiative to promote more efficient energy use, make the district's schools more environmentally friendly and integrate sustainability with school curriculums. Henry Clay and Rosa Parks Elementary School have been designated pilot schools for the effort, and both are working on energy-saving ideas developed with consultants' help. Several other Fayette schools also are getting energy audits to identify ways they can save. The project, still in the planning stages, will shift into high gear after schools reopen Aug. 11.
A more immediate step, however, will be the appointment of a district sustainability council, made up of school officials, teachers, parents and students, charged with developing overall sustainability goals. Consultant Scott Smith, who is coordinating the effort, said he's lining up council members now.
"I'd really like them to get a meeting or two under their belts before school starts," Smith said.
Initially at least, the emphasis will be on simple, low-cost or no-cost steps, such as shutting down systems when not needed, that could save energy without hindering regular or after-hours school activities.
"We're looking for inexpensive things we could tackle first," Smith said. "We're going to learn what we can do and what we can't, what makes sense and what doesn't. I really believe we can get it going without too much pain."
Money saved on energy could be put back into educating students, district officials say. And apparently there's plenty of potential for savings.
Energy is the second-largest operating expense for Kentucky's public school systems, trailing only personnel costs. In a typical year, Fayette County schools spend more than $7.5 million on electricity and natural gas. Overall, Kentucky public schools spent $183 million on heating, cooling, lighting and student transportation in 2008, according to figures cited at a recent school energy meeting, and costs keep rising. Because of that, school districts across Kentucky are looking for ways to save.
Fayette County Public Schools recently hired two energy managers, charged with finding ways to cut district costs. The district also is building two schools — the Locust Trace Agriscience Farm on Leestown Road and an elementary on Keithshire Way — with extensive "green" technology to save energy and reduce damaging storm-water run off. All new schools in the county will have similar technology.
The sustainability initiative goes hand in hand with those steps, said Mary Wright, Fayette County Public Schools' chief operating officer. Wright said the initiative grew out of the many ideas and suggestions the district has received in recent years from individuals and groups interested in environmental protection.
"This isn't something we're doing because it's politically correct or the latest, hottest thing," Wright said. "You don't put in a rain garden just to be putting in a rain garden. We want to be able to document things that really save money."
Officials stress that students will be involved in sustainability efforts at every school. That will be key, according to Wright, who says that with students taking active roles, other segments of the school community will quickly sign on.
"They could help drive the whole process," she said.