Colorado State University Study: High Schools that Create Conservation Culture Save Big on Energy

In terms of energy savings, how does a public high school built in 1973 compare to a new LEED-certified high school in the same district in the same town? In a recent study by Jeni Cross, assistant professor of sociology at Colorado State University, a 37-year-old high school in Poudre School District was able to achieve a 50 percent reduction in electricity use by changing the energy-saving behavior and attitudes of students, teachers and administrators.

More than $6 billion a year is spent on energy bills in public schools across the country. That translates to more funds than are allocated to textbooks and computers combined. Efforts to reduce this cost often focus on new energy-saving technologies, but Cross’ study highlights the fact that LEED standards – the U.S. Green Building Council’s certification standards – and technology are only one way to reduce consumption. Making a commitment to living in sustainable ways may hold the ultimate power, the study suggested.

According to Cross, America’s public schools provide the perfect environment to enact conservation efforts to help lessen substantial energy use costs.

Fort Collins’ Rocky Mountain High School, built in 1973, and Fossil Ridge High School, a LEED-certified building constructed in 2004, were analyzed for the study. Cross examined the electricity usage of each building to examine how energy conservation practices were able to produce electricity conservation comparable to a building designed and constructed to be more energy efficient.

Cross and her research team found that differences in electricity usage resulted from leadership and the cultural atmosphere of the school rather than just equipment or design. Her study supports the idea that pro-environmental behavior is fostered through integrated efforts at all organization levels, balancing institutional and structural changes with individual behaviors and attitudes.

“Electricity consumption at Rocky Mountain High School, a traditionally inefficient, decades-old public high school, was reduced by 50 percent between 2000 and 2007. Our study shows that energy costs at older school buildings can potentially be reduced by tens of thousands of dollars through comprehensive efforts to promote conservation,” Cross said.

“Between 2006 and 2007, the years of their most substantial savings thus far, Rocky generated $40,379 in total operations savings, above and beyond the substantial savings that had been generated prior to 2006. These savings are the direct result of behavioral modifications of staff and students across the school,” she said. “I want schools to know that behavior change is a big component of reducing our carbon footprint.”

The operations and maintenance staff are important contributors to reducing energy conservation by instituting energy management systems, such as automated control of HVAC systems and control of outdoor lighting. Operations Services also provides schools with data about their energy use that informs behavior change.

“When school staff and students work on what they can do through behavior and awareness in concert with our operations and maintenance team’s evolution in best management practices, the results are significant savings,” said Stu Reeve, energy manager for Poudre School District.

While Fossil Ridge High School uses less energy overall (electricity and natural gas), Rocky Mountain High School maintains the lowest rate of electricity use. Since this study was completed, Rocky Mountain High School has kept its annual rate of electric use (kWh/square foot) below that of all other high schools in the district, including the LEED-certified school. In fiscal years 2008 and 2009, electricity use at Rocky Mountain High School was 6 percent to 7 percent less than Fossil Ridge High School, 10 percent to 16 percent less than Poudre High School, and 20 percent to 24 percent less than Fort Collins High School.

Tom Lopez, principal of Rocky Mountain High School for the past seven years, is one of the school leaders credited with encouraging a change in culture and behavior. “Care and Repair” has become the school’s motto in regard to reducing consumption. The expectation is to care for existing equipment and repair when possible rather than purchasing new products. Lopez sees the motto as a way to incorporate educational and conservation goals within the school setting.

“Rocky made unprecedented change. It reduced its electricity consumption to levels below a newly built and certified LEED school. A set of interconnected efforts at Rocky inspired staff and students to change,” Cross said. “Leadership, communication and a sense of efficacy helped create a culture that values conservation and sustainability through clear behavioral expectations. This culture helped motivate and sustain their energy conservation efforts in the context of support and commitment from all levels of the organization.”

LEED certified building standards are important for long-term energy savings. However, Cross says one potential downside of LEED certified buildings is the potential for mindlessness—not paying active attention to energy consumption. If a building is expected to “perform” based on design and construction materials, then perhaps users would be less likely to act in environmentally responsible ways.

Members of Cross’ team included Chelsea Schelly, University of Wisconsin; William Franzen, Sage 2 Associates; and Pete Hall and Stu Reeve from the Poudre School District.

The study is published this month online at the Environment and Behavior journal website.Visit