October 21, 2005
Governments Waste Energy

New Haven Connecticut schools have started saving $600,000 per year by not heating and cooling schools when no one is in the schools.

NEW HAVEN, CONN. They're not rocket scientists. But conservation consultants John Pierson and Parthiban Mathavan were able to save New Haven Public Schools $1.1 million in energy costs last fiscal year.

How? By peeking out the window and deciding that a mild winter morning does not require full-blast heat at the 50 schools they monitor.

"We are always dreaming up ways to be more efficient," says Mr. Pierson. Typically, heat or air-conditioning was on 24/7 - even if no one was in school. Stopping that saved $600,000 the first year. "A lot of it is common sense."

So how many millions or tens of millions of dollars has New Haven wasted cooling and heating buildings for years or decades while the buildings were empty? How many other city, county, and state governments are still doing this even today?

Some conservation is very easy to do but governments lack the incentive to make even easy decisions to save costs.

"One of the big problems I see with municipalities is they get used to paying the bills, grumble about the price, and don't do a lot to investigate cost and consumption," Melchiori says. "To me, we are not employing any technology that anyone else couldn't employ.... It is a lot of common-sense application of existing possibilities; we just actually applied it."

A state government could do its citizens a favor if it passed a law requiring all state, county, and local governments to collect basic information on energy costs, and publish the information on the web in a state government database. Imagine the database contained energy costs per month along with energy types used, quantities of each energy type (e.g. kilowatt hours of electricity, gallons of heating fuel, millions of square feet of natural gas, and so on) and square feet of space for each building. Then concerned citizens search the database and look for energy usage per building, compare similar buildings, and spot likely sources of waste. Such a database would be even more helpful if it included temperature information per town per day so that outside temperature could be adjusted for when analyzing costs.

The knowledge that journalists and regular citizens were going to be looking through their energy usage data would give quite a few elected officials the incentive to find ways to eliminate waste and use cheaper energy sources. Transparency on costs will improve efficiency, lower costs, and improve the quality of governments.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2005 October 21 09:33 AM  Energy Policy

Nick said at October 21, 2005 10:52 AM:

Government has a lot of incentive to cut costs, because they're under enormous cost pressure. Oddly, this should be a logical place to go for entities which traditionally hate to lay off staff: energy savings don't hurt anyone.

Sadly, this is a universal problem. Private firms don't look at energy savings nearly as carefully as they should, and neither do consumers at home, or when buying vehicles. There are enormous opportunities, just wasted everywhere. At least in the US...

Your idea of publishing energy costs is very good. Perhaps most important, it would force local government to quantify and track these costs, and therefore educate them about energy costs. Secondly, it would raise energy costs as a public issue (government hates bad publicity), and make it easy for the terribly lazy media to do analysis.

Brock said at October 21, 2005 11:20 AM:

Hey, here's a wild idea. What if government just had to disclose ALL of their costs, as opposed to just energy? That's my tax money, and I'd like to know where it's going.

Mark said at October 21, 2005 12:40 PM:

Government has a lot of incentive to cut costs, because they're under enormous cost pressure.

Huh? What pressure is that? Is there a competing government ready to snap up citizens by providing a better service at lower cost? Governments have the luxury of legally requiring money from people while having little or no accountability for how they spend it. Case in point: That school is patting itself on the back for using common sense about heating but as Randall points out, they have most likely been wasting millions over the decades. Why? Not their money. Very easy to spend.

Chris said at October 21, 2005 12:43 PM:

One consequence of turning the HVAC on and off at schools is that it generally increases the humidity in the buildings which promotes the growth of mold.

One energy saving move made by a school district close to me was turning all of their computers and their intranet servers off overnight and on weekends.

Randall Parker said at October 21, 2005 1:24 PM:


Exactly right. The lack of pressure to save money is made obvious by the fact that such a simple obvious measure was only finally taken in 2005 or perhaps 2004. Hello? That is absolutely amazing.


Why would turning the heater on and offer increase humidity? I'd expect some moisture to condense from the air as the air cooled at night. But one way to compensate for that would be to turn off the humidifier an hour or two before turning off the heater.

Air conditioning has an opposite effect. Cooling causes moisture to precipitate. But you can collect the moisture in the air conditioning system. That helps keep the humidity down in the air and therefore helps people stay cooler.

gmoke said at October 21, 2005 2:41 PM:

There have been some efforts on both Federal and State levels to make new government construction and procurement apply higher energy standards but usually they have been voted down or observed more in the breach than the practice.

I'd say have the schoolchildren monitor energy usage in their own schools and offer them part of the savings for programs they'd like to give them some monetary incentive. My observation is that children tend to be less corrupt than their elders. Make the energy monitoring part of the curriculum as well and perhaps the kids would learn what their parents obviously haven't.

Hugh Angell said at October 21, 2005 4:45 PM:

I don't know what kind of 'Facilities" or Physical Plant manager New Haven employed except
to suspect he was incompetent if they had one at all.

Clearly steps as simple as turning off or turning down heating in unused space is pretty
routine...EVEN for government agencies. Outside air temperature sensors for boilers and
other space heating have been pretty standard equipment for all but the most antiquated
control systems as have zonal controls so you don't have to heat the entire school just
because there is a basketball game in the gym on Saturday night.

However, at the end of the day, this brings up something Randall has alluded to and I
have mentioned somewhat more directly. The huge infrastructure and operating costs of
educational and other government facilities. Reducing the need to send EVERY child to
a 'physical' school EVERY day for 9 months would save far more energy than whatever
computer controlled, state of the art energy system and building design ever could.
School bus runs could be vastly curtailed, school buildings reduced in size and staff
and all for the price of some broadband connections at the home and some TV studios
and a cable or satellite channel operated by the state departments of education.

Maybe the kids would go to classes just a couple of days per week and the rest of their
instruction would be at home via computer and tv terminals. Maybe those who excelled
in their studies could skip the classroom altogether. Parents could form neighborhood
groups to provide instruction more interesting and varied than what a 30 year old education
major is able to provide. The middle 20th century American education model is as obsolete
as the 19th century one room school house was. In fact the one room school house where
all grades were represented might be a superior model to the 1000plus student body school
of today.

In a note aside I might also suggest that a lot of other government offices could be
closed and or consolidated by using internet options. I can register my car e.g. today
on line and with a little work it should be possible to do most any task currently
handled at a DMV office, save taking a physical driving test, without visiting their

Nectar said at October 21, 2005 10:48 PM:

I live in a co-housing community started by a couple professors at the local university. The homeowners save money on utilities and other costs - like only needing 3 washing machines for the 30 households - and get to live in a neighborhood/community that people care about. Most of the kids are fortunate enough to be home-schooled.

David Tufte said at October 22, 2005 7:33 AM:

There is a down side to this too.

The University of New Orleans has had a policy in place for a long time that has incentives to turn down utilities.

Prior to the July 4th holiday weekend in 2000, one crew cleaned carpets in the library, without telling another crew that the air conditioning would need to be kept on all weekend to dehumidify the building.

The result was a mold infestation in the books. Several floors of the library had to be completely closed off hazmat-style for months, while the whole place was disinfected and every book in the collection was individually vacuumed. The initial cost estimates was $1-2 million, but I'm not sure what the final cost was.

Patrick said at October 22, 2005 6:25 PM:

How about reversing the problem? Why are these huge buildings only used for 7 hours a day, 5 days a week, 9 months a year? If there were other tenants in the building then not only wouldn't you be wasting the heat, you wouldn't be wasting the buildings, maintenance, realestate or security either.

I can think of a few possible uses:
1. Have 12 months of schooling. Just have each child attend 3/4 of the time, with 1/4 on holiday at any one time. You cut the capital costs of schools by 1/3, AND you get rid of that school holidays rush on holiday destinations and transport.
2.Rent out classrooms as cheap accomodation, must be vacated before 8 am and until 4 pm.

jimcrack said at October 26, 2005 6:56 PM:

Sure you can save energy in schools, by increasing productivity relative to gross energy consumption. Eliminate homeroom, which is 30 minutes of doing nothing, except putting kidsin alphabetical order. Open the cafeteria for breakfast, and encourage students to skip lunch for study. Knock out classroom walls and create college style lectures: classroom size issues are really bunk, but after lecture you can create small seminars for problem students. Hold Gym and intra murals early in the morning (to encourage breakfasting and class attendance the rest of the day: After gym have quiet periods for study and reflection. Lengthen some classroom period time to reduce wasted time moving through hallways. Start day later so time to arrive home coincides with presence of parent to supervise homework (and reduce likelihood of preteen sex and pregnancy). And retrofit obsolescent boiler systems.

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