Q&A with USGBC Green School Chapter Member Chris Tyler: How one Kentucky school cut energy at no cost

Published on: 
31 Aug 2011

Chris Tyler is a sustainability engineer for Thermal Equipment Sales, and also sits on the board of directors for USGBC’s Kentucky chapter. Chris’ children attend Rosa Parks Elementary, a school that recently cut its energy usage by 47 percent with no additional cost to the school. They made these dramatic reductions by improving operations and educating teachers and students on energy reduction strategies. This Friday, the school is being recognized by Rep. Ben Chandler (D-KY) and Mayor Jim Gray for receiving Energy Star certification, and also its hard work to reduce overall energy consumption. The school will receive its Energy Star plaque, and also highlight the hard work students and faculty have done to “green” their school. The event will be held at Rosa Parks Elementary in Lexington, KY at 11:00 a.m. ET.

From left to right: Clifford H. Ashburner, board member of USGBC Kentucky chapter, Rep. Ben Chandler, Chris Tyler, board member of USGBC Kentucky Chapter.

Can you describe more about the event happening Friday at Rosa Parks Elementary?

The students and teachers at Rosa Parks Elementary decided that they wanted a better understanding of how much energy the school was actually consuming on a day-to-day basis. Once the school went through and saw what its energy consumption was, the faculty entered that data into the Energy Star certification program. Rosa Parks Elementary became an Energy Star certified building, and will present the plaque on Friday. Congressman Ben Chandler, one of the three co-chairs of the Congressional Green Schools Caucus, will be at the ceremony to recognize the school and its efforts, and to present the plaque. Mayor Jim Gray of Lexington will also be there, to talk about the school’s efforts and to officially sign on to the Center for Green School’s Mayors' Alliance. Finally, our superintendent will give remarks about our district-wide efforts, and give recognition to all the great efforts from staff, students and teachers. This event is a great way to show other community members the hard work we put in to reduce our energy usage, and how this is something that can be done at any school across the country with no additional cost.

Can you give a little background on energy reduction efforts at Rosa Parks Elementary?

Rosa Parks Elementary started a “green team” in the fall of 2009. Although the team wasn’t focused solely on energy usage, it became one of the main sticking points because the principal was smart enough to see that this was an opportunity to not only save the school money, but to have a much larger impact on the community. This idea of making small changes for a greater good really had the potential to be engrained in student’s minds, and have it be something that they were excited to bring back and share with their families. And overall, the school wanted to see how much energy they could save with little to no cost to the school. All in all, over $50,000 in electricity was saved this past year.

How did you initially become involved with these efforts at the school?

When my oldest son started school, a flyer was sent home to parents with different PTA committees to get involved in. There was one for the green team, and I had a natural interest and background in some of the green issues. When we got into the introductions and what each person could bring to the table, I explained my involvement with USGBC, and it just seemed like a natural fit to volunteer. A little over a year ago, the school district also started a sustainability team, so I became a parent representative of that as well.

How has the school been able to reduce its energy consumption so drastically, without spending any money?

The school took a few initial steps to cut the energy usage significantly. Our maintenance department did a great job with our HVAC operations. The system had been operating from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m., so they changed it to run in occupied mode from 7 a.m. until 3 p.m., which may have cut about 25 percent of our HVAC energy consumption. The staff, teachers and students also used light meters to measure light usage in the school. In places where they saw excess light being used, the students removed two light bulbs from a four-light fixture, then verified appropriate light levels in those areas. Students and teachers became more cognizant about turning off lights, especially in “non-learning” areas where traffic was low. And finally, the schools implemented a program that automatically shut down the computers in the afternoon after students had left for the day. These are just some of the many things that students and teachers were able to do that led to a much larger benefit to the school.

This is a really great example of how a building can change the ways it operates with no cost. What advice do you have for other schools or parents looking to do something similar?

I would say begin by contacting your school about getting involved. See if your school has a green team or a PTA group dedicated to this cause. If it doesn’t, be vocal about getting one started. All you need is a few dedicated individuals to get something like this up and running.

What has been your biggest learning moment throughout this entire process?

Really seeing how big of a change we could make without spending any money whatsoever. There are so many small things we can do, such as tweaking shutoff times for electronics and being more aware of our light usage, that can make such a huge difference. The biggest thing to me was really looking at our achievements and seeing that cultural changes can be the driving force behind change. The fact that we were able to cut our energy usage basically in half in a one-year period is pretty incredible.

What will Rosa Parks Elementary do moving forward to further “green” their school?

The school district, not just Rosa Parks Elementary, will use this as an opportunity to learn from what was accomplished, and take that information forward to try to implement it in all the schools district-wide. Our district started a sustainability council about a year ago, which will continue to examine how all of the schools can begin making more sustainable changes across the board. We are also trying to educate people not just in the schools but throughout the state – whether its information on our website, videos we share, or whatever other materials we can use. It is important to teach others about how to save energy without spending money that they may not have.

Students are also taking other initiatives to continue with this momentum. The 5th graders currently have a recycling team, which goes around every morning to collect recyclable materials. We are hoping that programs like this can be expanded to include a composting team, as has already been done in other Fayette County schools, or something along those lines. The most important factor is just to make sure we keep the conversation going, and have the students take ownership. We have a new class of students coming in every year to the district, and these students take the information they learn home with them, which reaches a huge audience.

Interview conducted by Mallory Shelter, communications associate at the U.S. Green Building Council.