Public Power Magazine

Parents and Palo Alto Utility Partner For More Sustainable Schools

From the January-February 2013 issue (Vol. 71, No. 1) of Public Power

Originally published January-February 2013

By Laurel Lundstrom
January-February 2013


As Congress remains divided about how to balance the surging demand for energy with its rising cost, a new grass roots movement launched in Palo Alto, Calif., is banking on the next generation to drive conservation. The product of that movement, an environmental nonprofit organization called Zilowatt, helps schools operate more sustainably and cost-efficiently.

Launched by a group of parents frustrated with classrooms failing to address conservation and alarmed by the bureaucracy associated with installing renewable energy sources at schools, Zilowatt offers interactive tools that teach students and teachers about responsible energy behaviors. City of Palo Alto Utilities, which works with the Palo Alto Unified School District on a variety of sustainability and efficiency efforts, partnered with the parents to create those tools.

DEED sponsorship—Because Zilowatt aims to keep things simple and inexpensive, it originally required participating schools to garner a sponsor to pay for the educational materials. In Palo Alto, that sponsor was APPA’s Demonstration of in Energy-Efficient Developments (DEED) program, which provided a $35,000 grant to the city’s public power utility to create the tools.

“The funding greatly helped the parent group form Zilowatt and develop curricula,” said Joyce Kinnear, marketing manger for the City of Palo Alto Utilities.

With the DEED grant, the utility redesigned the Zilowatt website to make it more effective and created a set of hands-on energy lessons, labs and behavior-change tools to motivate and reinforce conservation habits. Those tools are now available on the website, where they can be downloaded for free by utilities and other organizations interested in promoting conservation and energy efficiency at schools.

The utility also reached out to schools for participation, consciously targeting those in East Palo Alto’s underprivileged neighborhoods, and gathered feedback to improve the materials and website. As of April 2012, Zilowatt tools were being used by 15 schools and organizations in California, Florida and Oregon.

Curbing energy waste—According to the Department of Energy’s Guide to Operating and Maintaining EnergySmart Schools, studies estimate that nearly one third of the energy consumed in the average U.S. school is wasted.

The Zilowatt program was designed as a low-cost, self-serve alternative to hiring an energy management company or developing an energy-saving program from scratch using free web resources, according to the final report on the program. The report says that while there are “many organizations willing to charge hefty fees to perform energy audits, provide energy-management advice, suggest energy-efficiency retrofits or sell solar- electric systems,” there are none focused on “helping schools economically and easily create their own energy conservation programs.”

During the grant period, from April 2011 to 2012, the report says that Zilowatt successfully met its aim: creating a culture of conservation at participating schools. It did not, however, significantly reduce energy usage at those schools.

The final report explains that because of its grass roots nature and schools’ lack of specific energy policies and managers, Zilowatt earned just one to two teacher or volunteer champions at each school, where it was usually rolled out piecemeal as a small part of science curricula, rather than systemically across classrooms and grades. While many teachers found it difficult to find time for the extra Zilowatt lessons, others already interested in promoting conservation were willing to try the materials.

Making sustainability more systematic—City of Palo Alto Utilities recommends establishing energy policy directives and appointing managers who could engage
schools in more concerted conservation efforts, mapping Zilowatt lessons to state education standards, and creating lesson videos to show teachers how easy it is to use Zilowatt materials.

Although the term of the DEED grant has ended, the utility intends to seek support for outreach to additional schools and is developing an implementation guide for those starting a Zilowatt energy-conservation program. The utility also plans to make the program easier to use by matching lessons to school curricula and adding demonstration videos, more useful lessons and tools.

The utility is also evaluating how Zilowatt lessons and tools “could more tightly link teachers and student action to energy management tasks like comprehensive audits, data-logging, energy use monitoring and exploring linkages with other companies or groups that could be partners in promoting conservation behavior change.”


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