Beyond the Bulb: A Case Study in School Daylighting
The squeeze is on for schools. Pressure to boost student test scores is up. Budgets have been slashed. Energy prices have gone through the roof. Many facilities are aging and overcrowded. More than ever before, school administrators are facing tough choices in order to provide the best learning environment for students.
Daylighting – or the strategic use of natural lighting techniques – has become a key component of school modernization projects. More than just the latest design fad, effective daylighting allows school districts to achieve significant energy savings, be environmentally responsible, increase student attendance and test scores, and provide better overall facilities for students to learn and educators to work. There are now a variety of programs in place to make it more affordable for school districts to reap the benefits of daylighting. Additionally, the entire process can become a great environmental lesson for kids about the importance of saving energy.
A New Standard for Energy Efficiency
A middle school recently opened in The Dalles, Ore., has been recognized by the U.S. Green Building Council as one of the most energy-efficient schools in the nation. The district reduced its operating costs for the new middle school by more than 45 percent through energy saving technologies that included extensive use of daylighting. Tubular daylighting devices were installed in the classrooms, along with lighting controls and sensors that adjusted the fluorescent lamps to supplement the natural light. By collecting and distributing both direct and ambient light, the tubular daylighting devices were able to effectively deliver natural lighting throughout the school even in the cloudy and rainy Oregon climate.
The Cost of Modernization
Most schools spend more money on energy than on books and supplies. It is well-documented that effective daylighting can significantly lower this energy consumption in school buildings. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 72 percent of the cost of energy in educational buildings goes towards electricity, with the majority (56 percent) going toward electric lighting. By utilizing effective daylighting strategies, in combination with lighting controls and dimming systems, schools can reduce or eliminate the need for heat-producing electric lights during the school day. Additionally, this cooler, more energy-efficient daylighting reduces the demand on cooling systems, boosting the potential energy savings even further. According to the Collaborative for High Performing Schools (CHPS), school energy costs average $100 per student per year, while effective design solutions can save up to $50 per student per year. By reducing these operational costs, the savings can be redirected to improving education.
In addition to reducing energy expenditures, daylighting can provide an unexpected revenue source. Studies have shown that improved school design, including the use of natural light, can reduce student absenteeism by several days per calendar year. With school revenue limit rates directly dependent on Average Daily Attendance (ADA), even small increases in attendance can significantly impact school funding.
Consider this example from CHPS: Assume that a 500-student elementary school invests $4 per square foot on lighting and air conditioning improvements. Based on the $4,300 revenue limit, an increase in average daily attendance of 1.75 percent would pay back all of the investments in only two years. This doesn’t even take into account all of the utility savings from these energy-efficient improvements.
Government Sponsored Programs
California, which houses the largest school system in the nation, is leading the way in energy-efficient school design and programs to support its implementation. California schools spend $700 million annually on energy, a figure which could be cut by 20 to 40 percent through increased energy efficiency measures, allowing desperately needed funds to be made available to educate students in a time of a state budget crisis.
The Bright Schools Program has been set up by the California Energy Commission to help new and existing schools identify, design and implement more cost-effective, energy-efficient lighting and HVAC systems. The program works closely with schools to secure low-interest loans to provide all or a portion of the funds needed for energy-related deferred maintenance projects or to match modernization funding from other state programs.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s EnergySmart Schools campaign is another program that is helping schools get started with energy saving tools like daylighting. The program offers free technical help and training to school districts as well as contacts in other communities who have already built or renovated using smart energy concepts.
School bonds have provided another valuable source of funding to integrate modern daylighting into classrooms.
A School District located in Sacramento, Calif., has experienced an unprecedented 18 percent growth rate (four percent would have been considered fast) and state funding has not been able to keep up with the pace. Students have been placed into portable classrooms, 25-foot-by-40-foot dark tunnels that lack the natural light the district recognized as important for a productive learning environment. As a result, a $300,000 bond was passed specifically to daylight the 121 portable classrooms with 267 tubular daylighting devices, which were installed prior to the beginning of the 2003-2004 school year.
“With the economic pressures placed on districts today, schools are moving not only toward energy efficiency, but toward energy self sufficiency,” said Mike Mormon, director of facilities and planning for the school district. “The benefits of daylighting extend beyond just providing a better learning environment for students, but to impacting the bottom-line for districts.”
Other Financing Strategies
According to the EnergySmart Schools campaign, an innovative approach to financing energy improvements that is gaining popularity is to consider the energy efficiency of your school facilities as a ready source of cash. Like home equity, this “energy equity” can be used to leverage a loan or to directly finance both energy and other facility improvements.
Local and state utility companies may also provide rebates, incentive programs or grant opportunities to support energy-efficient projects. Some states, including California, New York and North Carolina, also offer tax credits to help offset the cost of upgrades.
A Light Assignment – Daylighting Teaches Kids Valuable Lesson
At least one school has taken advantage of this “green” design tool to teach its students about the importance of energy conservation. An elementary school in Morro Bay, Calif., applied for and received a $15,000 conservation grant from the California Consumer Services Education Department to retrofit five classrooms with natural lighting. Each classroom, approximately 920 square feet in size, was outfitted with six 21-inch tubular daylighting devices. Prior to the installation, a teacher followed a scientific approach to help the students measure the light levels in each room with the fluorescent lights on over the course of six days using a light meter. After the tubular daylighting devices were installed, they turned all the lights off and used the light meter to measure the light levels of only the natural light provided by the daylighting devices. There was an overall sustained light increase of 25 percent.