School Costs: Energy Use and Air Quality

School costs for energy are second only to personnel costs as the leading draw on K-12 school district operating budgets.

Schools spend approximately $75 per student on gas bills and $130 per student on electricity each year… By implementing energy efficiency measures, many K-12 schools have been able to reduce energy costs by as much as 30 percent in existing facilities (2004). Modification of a pre-existing building for energy efficiency can save a typical 100,000-square-foot school building between $10,000 and $16,000 annually.

— Energy Efficiency Programs in K-12 Schools, 2011, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

In addition to impactful cost savings, studies have shown that natural light and indoor air quality increase productivity and test scores, and decrease absenteeism of teachers and students. The Center for Building Performance at Carnegie Mellon University reviewed more than 1,500 studies to find that anyone – workers, teachers, students – benefits from better building design and indoor air quality.

A school that is well lit with outdoor views offers a better learning environment and raises school performance 20%, according to a study of 21,000 kids in California, Colorado and Washington.

Case Studies

Minneapolis has not been able to invest heavily in energy efficiency improvements. But examples from around the country show some of the benefits when energy efficiency funding can be found:

  • Long Beach Cesar Chavez Elementary School in California used new construction to build in natural ventilation, low water-cost landscaping, and weather-controlled irrigation. In its first year, it used 33% less energy than an equivalent standard school built to code and used 100K fewer gallons of water.
  • The 58,000 square foot Ash Creek Intermediate School in Monmouth, Oregon, was built (at $124 per square foot) for about $10 square feet less than equivalent middle schools. Its energy use is at 30% below Oregon’s energy code, saving at least $11,000 per year in electricity and gas. As the superintendent of schools in that area said, “People don’t realize how expensive it is to operate an inefficient school facility.” An elementary school in Monmouth built in the 1960s had electric bills amounting to $78,000. Students experienced a 15% reduction in absenteeism.
  • Students moving from a conventional school to the new green Clearview Elementary School, a 2002 LEED Gold building in Pennsylvania, experienced substantial improvements in health and test scores. A PhD thesis on the school found a 19% increase in average Student Oral Reading Fluency Scores when compared to the prior, conventional school.
  • Closer to home, when Red Wing High School needed to upgrade its HVAC system to improve indoor air quality, it worked with an architectural firm to ensure that its new system saves the school $120,000 annually in energy costs.

Air Pollution Factors

All buildings — including schools — reduce annual emissions of nitrogen oxides (a principal component of smog), sulfur dioxide (a principal cause of acid rain), carbon dioxide (the principal greenhouse gas and the principal product of combustion) and coarse particulate matter (a principal cause of respiratory illness and an important contributor to smog).

Did you know the World Health Organization reports that in 2012 alone, 7 million people died of air pollution? The Star Tribune reported (July 13, 2015) that Every year air pollution in the Twin Cities contributes to the deaths of about 2,000 people and sends another 1,000 to the hospital for asthma and heart disease treatment.

Asthma is a widespread and worsening disease among school children. The American Lung Association has found that American children miss more than 14 million school days a year because of asthma exacerbated by poor indoor air quality. Nationally, about one in ten of all school children suffer from asthma.

  • Carnegie Mellon has found an average reduction of 38.5% in asthma in buildings with improved air quality, and an average reduction of colds and flu by 51%.
  • A major review of the literature by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory estimates that better ventilation and indoor air quality would reduce illnesses by 9-20% in the general population, result in 16-37 million fewer cases of the cold and influenza and provide annual savings of $6-14 billion.

How Is Minneapolis Doing?

Minneapolis serves more than 30,000 students in about 50 schools. About 30 of those schools were built before 1930. Thanks to the fear of tuberculosis, state-of-the-art design at the time included open-air designs with an emphasis on safety and hygiene.

One of the earliest schools still standing is Edison High School in Northeast Minneapolis, which was built in 1922. Thanks to City Council leadership by Ward 1’s Kevin Reich, the school is undergoing environmental sustainability improvements — including irrigation and solar energy systems.

Yet to come in this series (with funding)… how do our schools measure up in energy use and air quality?

Deeper Reading

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Energy Efficiency Report, “Energy Efficiency Programs in K-12 Schools: A Guide to Developing and Implementing Greenhouse Gas Reduction Programs”

“By implementing energy efficiency measures, many K-12 schools have been able to reduce energy costs by as much as 30 percent in existing facilities (U.S. EPA, 2004b). According to EPA, modification of a pre-existing building for energy efficiency (a process known as retro-commissioning) can save a typical 100,000-square-foot school building between $10,000 and $16,000 annually, and simple behavioral and operational measures alone can reduce energy costs by up to 25 percent (U.S. EPA, 2008).”

Gregory Kats did landmark research on schools, in his 26-page 2006 report “Greening American Schools: Costs and Benefits,” determining that in the long run, a green school investment outweighs its costs 20:1.

The average school energy use in 2005/2006 was $1.15/ft, of which electricity was 63% and natural gas 34%. For the 30 green schools reviewed in the report, the average energy reduction compared with conventional design was 33% per year. The 30 green schools Kats evaluated also achieved an average water use reduction of 32%.

Minneapolis Public Schools Historic Context Study, prepared for the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission (April 2005)

In This Series



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