Teachable Moment AppleEnergy efficiencies, ultimately, are not about buildings but about people. Fixing a building so that it is no longer an energy hog is important, but what happens when people use the building? It is easy to forget that turning up the thermostat, opening windows, or adding more appliances can wipe out hard won energy efficiencies achieved with retrofits. So once the fixes are made, teaching people how to use their buildings to keep energy savings is as important as the retrofits themselves. For local governments these savings can amount to more money in their budgets for critical services at a time of declining revenues.

Washington State University’s Energy Program is using Energy Efficiency Conservation Block Grant funds to address this important aspect of saving energy. The program has created a grant program to support hiring Resource Conservation Managers (RCM)—people focused on teaching people how to use buildings more efficiently—for small cities and county governments. Local governments have until January 15 to apply for up to $75,000 to fund an RCM that would be shared between smaller local governments.

  • I wrote about Puget Sound Energy’s Resource Conservation Specialist program. That program served as an example for the Teach People section of our backgrounder on Green Collar Jobs.  Like PSE’s Conservation Specialists the RCM’s main job is to find ways to wring efficiencies from the operations of buildings—from the people inside them.

    WSU’s Energy program has a couple of great case studies illustrating the simple things these green collar workers do that yield big savings.

    Brittin Witzenburg is the RCM for the Olympia School District and her work has already yielded $444,061 in savings in two years, the result of a 10 percent reduction in overall energy use. After paying for the RCM, an extra $318,436 in savings is left for the school district to use for educating kids.

    Teachable Moment Chart

    You might wonder, “What does $318,436 buy for a school district?” the district recently had to cut its budget, resulting in an increase of class sizes by an average of 1.5 students per class. This isn’t a huge increase in class size, but when added to multiple other cuts coming in next year’s budget, class sizes are bound to grow in Olympia and around the state. The money saved through the RCM program starts to look pretty good as school budgets face painful cuts that hurt kids

    What do the efficiencies look like? Here is an example of what Witzenburg did to improve operations:

    The first issue of her RCM newsletter encouraged a number of vacation shutdown procedures for classrooms and work spaces. Most of the district’s 2,100 operating computers were turned off, blinds drawn, and heating systems turned down. The result was a 7.4 percent reduction in December’s energy use as compared to [energy use the previous December].

    It’s commonsense stuff, but it’s the sort of thing that can easily be overlooked by building users.

    City and county budgets aren’t faring too well in this economy either. WSU’s program would allow local governments to work together. A city and county government could apply for funding together and share one RCM and combine their energy savings. The RCM program has proven itself to be effective in larger districts like Olympia and similar programs have delivered savings in the state’s largest district, Seattle. Now, through WSU’s grant program, smaller local governments can team up through the grant to achieve savings too.

    The RCM program in schools is an example of what smart use of stimulus dollars can produce. Like PSE’s program, the work of the RCM pays for itself over time, creating sustainable efficiencies and jobs; and most importantly, in the case of schools, more money for public education, which Washington’s constitution calls the “paramount duty” of the state. Proposals to support these and other ideas that improve energy use in schools are likely to appear in Washington’s next legislative session in January.

    The simple fact is that along with performance contracting, these programs produce real and significant savings—cash money—that schools and local government can put to work right away to stave off some of the harshest cuts they might otherwise have to make to critical services and programs. Making energy saving retrofits to buildings isn’t enough. Teaching people how to use those buildings is just as important.