Schools Reduce Energy Waste and Win Cash

The six-week competition taught students how small, energy-efficient changes make big differences


Students at Oconomowoc High School, Jack Young Middle School in Baraboo, and Royal Oaks Elementary School in Sun Prairie can call themselves “Energy Efficiency Scholars” for their efforts in the Renew our Schools Energy Conservation Competition. The three schools earned between $1,500 to $2,500 in FOCUS ON ENERGY® (Focus) incentives competing against five other schools across Wisconsin. The competition is a six-week challenge offered by Resource Central. The Wisconsin K-12 Energy Education Program (KEEP) and Focus collaborated with the schools giving students the opportunity to learn energy concepts and make behavioral changes to reduce energy consumption in their school and community.

Royal Oaks Elementary School – 18% Energy Reduction

$2,500 in incentives earned

Renew Our Schools Competition Champion

Royal Oaks Students with Teacher

Reducing energy consumption by almost 20% is an amazing feat, especially for a school. Think about all the complex electrical and HVAC systems in a school, add the students plus classroom and office equipment, large spaces like a gym and cafeteria. Turning off lights at home is tough for kids and even some adults. Try remembering to do that at a school.

Back in 2018, students and staff at Royal Oaks worked together to raise $23,000 to install solar panels and put the incentives they received towards purchasing energy generating bicycles. This prior experience working as a team helped them reduce their energy use by 18% and made them the top performing school in the competition.

“We’ve learned that becoming an energy conscious school provides numerous educational opportunities for all of our students, and at the same (time) has a positive impact on our planet,” Royal Oaks 2nd Grade Teacher Patrick Bencher told us. “The Renew (Challenge) called for a collective effort to make measurable change. Based on our history of pulling together for a good cause, I knew Royal Oaks would approach the challenge with great enthusiasm.”

Students focused on big sections of the building instead of small ones and teachers and staff made changes including a schoolwide “Flashlight Friday” during reading time. When students discovered projectors in classrooms demand a HUGE energy load, they began an “aggressive” poster campaign to reduce projector use. When auditing the Gym, Cafeteria, Library, and Large Group Instruction Room, lightbulbs were counted, and students monitored how often the areas WEREN’T in use. Now those areas “go dark” when not in use. Working closely with both day and night custodians, they made major changes to their opening and closing approaches when the building was virtually empty.

Students from Kindergarten to fifth grade became invested in the program because they recognized they were getting real-time data and could see the changes they made worked. Using Watt Meters, Infrared Thermometers, and meters had students insisting they check the eGauge every morning as school began.

“You cannot force people to change their habits around energy use,” Bencher said. “Giving as much ownership of the project to the students as possible is a great way to overcome such challenges. After all, what’s most important is the learning that the students take away from it.”

Oconomowoc High School – 9.2% Energy Usage Reduction

$2,500 in incentives earned

High School Students in class

2020 Wisconsin Energy Educator of the Year Kelly Holtzman knew right away Oconomowoc High School and the students in her AP Environmental Science class would jump right in and do all they could to win the competition. The students were already studying energy as part of the curriculum for the AP test and the school’s Green Team has a great working relationship with the Buildings and Grounds staff who were key to helping to reduce the amount of energy used.

“They are always looking for ways to save energy,” Holtzman said of the Buildings and Grounds staff. “It worked out perfectly to have them help (the students) with the technical side. The students learned important lessons that will help them with their AP exams and learned about the work the custodial staff does in the school.”

Students also used data from lighting monitors and determined which areas of the school could have some lightbulbs taken out of fixtures and which areas needed more lighting. They also created videos, made school announcements, and sent emails to staff with simple suggestions on ways the entire school could save energy. The custodians helped turn off lights in the hallways when natural light was enough. The Buildings and Grounds staff turned the air handlers to an occupancy-only setting which made a huge impact on energy reduction.

Jack Young Middle School – Best Effort Award

$1,500 in incentives earned

Middle School Students in class

The students at Jack Young Middle School (JYMS) knew they would have a challenge on their hands before signing-up for the Renew Our Schools Competition. Energy efficiency improvements were part of the foundation of a recent and major renovation at JYMS. Since the Renew Our Schools competition is about education and reducing energy usage at schools, students realized they would need to find uncommon as well as a lot of smaller energy reduction changes. And they did!

The easiest, and what turned out to be the best energy-reduction action involved encouraging school staff to unplug all appliances not needed regularly as well as turn off classroom lights. When audits found some classrooms exceeding lighting levels, staff dimmed them.

“We loved the idea of having students take the lead in determining if our school was energy efficient and how we could reduce our energy consumption,” JYMS Science Teacher Craig Phillips said. “The competition helps create a sense of community among the staff and students by creating a common goal.”

A JYSM parent who is also a member of Power Up Baraboo brought information about the Renew Our School competition to school staff realizing the positive outcomes for students and the school. Powered Up Baraboo is a community organization advocating to increase the use of renewable energy and environmentally sustainable practices in the Baraboo and Sauk County area through education.

Phillips believes competing in the Renew Our Schools Challenge offers two rewards; the first and most obvious is that school districts could potentially save a lot of money in energy costs. The second, fewer greenhouse gasses helping to save our planet.

“Teaching students about energy efficiency through this engaging competition not only sets up Wisconsin for a more efficient future, it gets them interested in jobs in the energy field and sets them up to make the changes that are going to be needed to continue to reduce energy waste in the upcoming decades,” said Heather Feigum, Program Manager with Focus on Energy. “Partnering with utilities, Resource Central, and KEEP provided such a unique set of leaders to assist teachers to engage students.”

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