Slaying the energy vampires during Nashville's COVID-19 shutdown

Published on: 
30 Oct 2020
Caroline Coster

The 2019–2020 Green School Scholars have been busy supporting their districts response to COVID-19. This fall, each of the five scholars are sharing how their work has prioritized sustainability as a core focus and how their successes have meant huge financial savings for their district, improved partnerships across the community, new assets at the schools and more.

On the fringes of Nashville, Tennessee, "the Music City," schools sat frozen in time, as in a horror movie, with dust collecting on rows of desks. The automated bell still echoed in the hollow hallways, replacing the shrieks of students and lockers slamming. Unorganized papers remained on teacher’s desks, topped with unrinsed coffee cups. The writing on the board still showed directions for assignments due March 14.

The schools remained eerily dark and quiet for months, as the principals closed their doors on the invisible coronavirus spreading through the world…except they weren’t dark. Or eerie. Or in a horror movie.

Overhead lighting illuminated the hallways and computer monitors glowed blue from standby mode. IT servers and copiers flickered in the main office. Microwaves still showed the time next to the lit power buttons on hundreds of Keurig coffee makers. Open blinds showed classrooms with lamps and decorative lighting left on. The brick neighborhood schools glowed like beacons in the night.

When Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) entered the “panic of the unknown” at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was decided that no one would be returning to school the next day, March 12. There were no preparations for a shutdown, which meant most appliances, equipment and lights were left on to continue powering empty schools.

The MNPS energy conservation team had no plan other than to act: Turn off, shut down and unplug. The goal was to manually shut down all schools in the district themselves to avoid as much energy waste as possible. They would slay all the energy-sucking vampires lurking in the abandoned classrooms and cut the humming created by the unrestrained IT equipment still drawing energy from the outlets.

Once it was deemed safe, the team of four received special permission to enter the buildings, and each member was assigned a regional zone. The first steps involved gearing up with masks and gloves, refilling the hand sanitizer container and looking for a hidden stash of Lysol wipes. Then, they set off alone to investigate every single room in the building. All appliances and pieces of equipment were unplugged, including water fountains and vending machines. If they couldn’t be unplugged, they had to be powered off.

All lighting was turned off, even if it worked on a sensor. Kitchens were shut down and unlocked, and empty coolers, deep freezers and refrigerators in the cafeterias were unplugged. Thermostats were adjusted to “unoccupied mode” and set to 80 degrees to make sure cooling wasn’t activated. All windows, blinds and doors were to be closed to keep the temperature constant. It took hours at each school to crawl under desks, shift bookshelves and throw away rotting food before defrosting dozens of minifridges kept in the individual classrooms.

From March to June, the energy team shut down over 130 district sites, resulting in a reduction of 19,123,773 kWh and $2,019,129 in energy cost savings, a 33% energy reduction from the previous fiscal year. Site observations included more than 2,300 areas of opportunity for energy reduction and identified 4,053 personal appliances left plugged in. Included in the totals found were 1017 microwaves, 1090 individual lamps, 826 minifridges, 433 coffee makers and 274 oil diffusers. The findings are being used as benchmark data for determining success and to record improvements during future audits. Once the initial shutdown was finished, more audits continued, each time focusing on a shutdown of a certain appliance or area.

As of October, the energy team is on its fourth audit. Although there has been an uptick in occupancy and custodial activity, classrooms mostly remain unplugged, shut down and closed, and energy usage remains low due to training and constant communication. The team is using the detailed counts of plug loads and associated savings as an educational tool for when schools begin to fully reopen.

The goal is to continue slaying energy vampires as they creep in—keeping the schools dark, the hallways hollow, the temperature regulated and the appliances silenced while buildings are unoccupied. The more eerie and shadowy schools remain when no one is in them, the sooner the district will reach its goal of 16% overall energy reduction by 2025. This effort will improve the Metro Nashville Public Schools sustainability and ensure students are prepared stewards of the environment. 

Learn more about COVID-19 guidance for schools