One district’s energy efficiency project will give students a boost—and save $20 million

It also places Cherry Creek School District on track to beat a state requirement to reduce emissions by 20% by 2030.

The temperature is rising in Colorado as the impacts of climate change, once dismissed as concerns for a more distant future, are becoming day-to-day realities for school leaders. And their facilities, like those throughout the western U.S., are also threatened by the likelihood of more disastrous wildfires and dwindling water supplies.

At the Cherry Creek School District, south of Denver, conserving natural resources and the comfort of staff and students are two goals of an extensive energy-efficiency project that should cut carbon emissions at its 87 facilities by 25% by 2026 and save 1.8 billion gallons of water. The overall results should cover the cost of the work and generate an additional $20 million in savings, allowing the district to beat a state requirement to reduce emissions by 20% by 2030, says Scott Smith, Cherry Creek’s chief financial and operating officer.

“Colorado is feeling the effects of climate change as much as anywhere else,” Smith says. “CCSD is doing its part to safeguard our region against the negative impacts caused by climate change and secure Colorado’s economic future. We view this project as the first step in a journey toward long-term sustainability.”

The district started the work with LED lighting and HVAC upgrades because these will provide the most immediate benefits for students and staff. Fluorescent lighting is being removed from its classrooms, offices, hallways, and gyms in all elementary, middle and high schools. New lighting should better distribute light than older fixtures that concentrate light in the center of rooms, leaving some areas in shadow. Boilers and chillers will be replaced to catch the district up on deferred maintenance.

Better lighting prevents fatigue and eye strain while improved air quality can help students focus and has been linked to improvements in math and reading. Teachers can also expect students to be more engaged in more comfortable environments, Smith says.

Super savers

Cherry Creek’s yearly emissions reductions will be equivalent to:

  • CO2 emissions 3,055 passenger vehicles
  • CO2 sequestered by 16,876 acres of US forest annually
  • CO2 emissions from 32,967 barrels of oil consumed
  • CO2 emissions from 2,759 homes for one year

Source: Johnson Controls.

In the coming years, the district will complete an extensive retrofit of its plumbing fixtures and sprinkler systems with weather-based web-enabled smart controllers. Finally, it will connect its buildings through Johnson Controls’ OpenBlue technology, an AI-enabled monitoring platform that provides school personnel with data to optimize operations and chart energy use roadmaps. The system’s Green Hub interface will allow students, staff, and members of the public to track the district’s energy conservation efforts on their mobile devices.

On the equity front, the district has contracted with minority- and women-owned businesses on various aspects of the projects. “The opportunity to enhance the learning environment, reduce our carbon footprint, and save money on utilities while not requiring additional taxpayer funding is a no-brainer,” Smith said. “The era of smart, optimized and sustainable infrastructure is here, and no one deserves to be safe and healthy more than our children.”

Districts can start their journeys toward energy efficiency by first reducing demand through behavior and smart technology, such as the equipment being installed at Cherry Creek, says Jennifer Stentz, Johnson Controls’ vice president and general manager for HVAC controls and sustainability infrastructure in North America. The data and insights provided by technology such as OpenBlue can help conservation become a part of a district’s culture and better direct maintenance activities, Stentz says.

Administrations looking for more guidance on energy efficiency and sustainably can use a guide released last month by the White House.

3 superintendents to watch: Charting a new normal for education 


Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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