Schools: Time right for strong energy standards

Three young students with computers at the 11th Annual Bay Area Maker Faire in San Mateo in May. (Photo: David Gilder, Shutterstock)

After years of tightened budgets, K-12 schools in California are always looking for ways to save money without diminishing the quality of classroom instruction. The California Energy Commission (CEC) has a golden opportunity to help schools do just that, with the recent release of final energy efficiency standards for computers and monitors that the CEC estimates would save Californians $370 million each year.

Saving money through energy efficiency is a smart use of taxpayer dollars, and school districts have been moving in this direction since facing deep funding cuts during the Great Recession. From changing out classroom and outdoor lighting to solar installations on rooftops and shade structures, California schools have seen positive results from making wise energy choices.

The CEC’s computer efficiency standards could help cut desktop computer energy use in half, helping schools to save on utility bills.

As parents and communities have been seeking more technology in the classroom to help students learn better, and as more computerized reporting systems have been required for management and administration, schools have also become large bulk purchasers of desktop computers. These machines are vital tools for classrooms and offices – but they also use a lot of energy. The CEC estimates that computers and monitors are responsible for around 7 percent of electricity use in the commercial sector – where appliances are concentrated in offices and schools. That’s where statewide standards come in.

School districts work hard to make the most of every dollar as they prepare California’s students for work, college or whatever career path they choose, while facing rising utility bills that affect their budgets. It has been widely reported that California’s 11,000 public schools spend as much each year on energy as they do for books and supplies—about $700 million. Roughly a quarter of the supplied electricity, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (USDOE), is wasted through inefficiency.

The CEC’s computer efficiency standards could help cut desktop computer energy use in half, helping schools to save on utility bills. This would free up money for other uses related to classroom learning and closing the achievement gap. That assumes the cost of equipment remains the same, which would be required or the proposed savings would be compromised.  The School Energy Coalition works with schools on energy efficiency, and we would ask the state to consider mitigating any additional up-front costs schools might face from computer efficiency standards.

The CEC estimates that the new standards would add about $14 to the cost of making a computer, while saving the buyer more than $40 over five years. That might not sound like a lot of money. But according to the USDOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, schools across the country spend more than $6 billion on energy every year, with an estimated $1.5 billion of that amount wasted because of inefficiency. Initiatives such as California’s new computer efficiency standards have the potential to make a real dent in those numbers.

Our students need access to computers to stay competitive, while our schools need a way to handle rising energy costs. Strong computer efficiency standards will save energy and money – especially if up-front costs are kept in check — while giving our children access to the technology they need.

Ed’s Note: Anna Ferrera is executive director of the School Energy Coalition, which advocates on behalf of energy and water efficiency and management in California’s K-12 schools.

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