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Green school retrofit provides real-world lab for students at Grant Union High School

AP Environmental Science students are exploring the gym at Grant Union High School–and they’re shooting lasers at the ceiling.

Handheld laser distance meters are just one of a few specialty tools Pacific Gas & Electric energy specialist Keith Smith is teaching the students to use. The lasers allow them to measure distance from each lighting fixture to the floor of the gym.

The class is taking baseline measurements as part of a larger project to make the gym at Grant High School dramatically brighter, thanks to a $10,000 Bright Ideas grant to the Twin Rivers Unified School District from the Pacific Gas & Electric Company.

Greenwise Joint Venture and the U.C. Davis’ California Lighting Technology Center (CLTC) pledged in-kind support for the project.

Grant Union High School was built in 1932, and the current gym (rebuilt after a fire in 1969) is now nearly 40 years old. The environmental science students were horrified to learn the switch used to turn the lights on and off is controlled by a key… and the key was lost years ago, which means that lights have been left running 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

A U.C. Berkeley study warns that 73 percent of California schools are more than 25 years old, and they are starting to fall apart (California’s K-12 Educational Infrastructure Investments). Retrofitting these facilities could make a significant dent in maintenance and utility costs as well as in the greenhouse gas emissions produced by aging structures.

With help from Smith, and Twin Rivers Unified Facilities Manager Tim Bonds, students evaluated the school’s utility bills and calculated the average cost per kilowatt-hour (kWh) to keep the lights on. Students estimate that lighting in just the gym alone costs the school district $14,000 each year.

Lighting retrofits provide a great opportunity for schools to cut costs. Lighting represents approximately 20 percent of electricity use in a K-12 facility and typically does not require major structural changes to buildings.

The CLTC is helping the District evaluate and select new lighting technology for the gym. Over the summer the District will install the lighting; when students return to class in the fall, they should notice a lighter, brighter gym.

A new group of AP environmental science students will be able to tell the school district just how much brighter. The fall class will measure the amount of light produced by new lighting technology and evaluate the retrofit’s impact on lighting quality, utility costs and the school’s carbon footprint.

“Monitoring and evaluating energy savings from the lighting retrofit provides a real-life learning laboratory,” said teacher Arron White. “I hope this encourages students to consider the possibilities of 21st century ‘green’ careers.”

Greenwise Joint Venture is helping the class develop a communications plan to educate and engage the Grant Union High School students, faculty and parents about energy efficiency. Students will present their findings to the Twin Rivers Unified School Board at the project’s end.

The District pledged to invest cost savings from this retrofit in other energy saving measures. With the student’s help, they will not only have a clear picture of these savings, but will have demonstrated the effectiveness of new low-energy lighting technologies in the Sacramento region.

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