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Surrey schools build conservation culture one behaviour at a time

Image of Alasdair Mackinnon, Surrey School District
To obtain energy savings in the school, Surrey School District's Alasdair Mackinnon says a variety of programs motivate students and staff to change their behaviours.

School district inspires staff, students to adopt energy efficient behaviours

Despite a population of 70,000 students that changes every year, the Surrey School District has placed people at the centre of its energy conservation efforts.

Since 2010, as part of its carbon footprint reduction strategy, Surrey has aimed to be B.C.'s leading school district iin energy conservation awareness. It inspires staff and students to shift towards energy efficient behaviours by creating a culture of conservation.

The district is making great progress, in part by drawing on the tools and resources of the BC Hydro Power Smart Partner Program. Of the district's 125 sites, 79 participated in one or more of its energy conservation initiatives last year, and others ran their own customized programs.

The efforts yielded a seven per cent reduction in overall energy use, on track for the district's targets of $1 million in energy savings over the next five years and a reduction in energy use of 10 gigawatt hours by 2015 (the energy used by about 930 homes).

Leadership for success

Inspiration for conservation behaviour change comes, in part, from the top. The Surrey Board of Education has made energy management a priority, right down to including an explanation of its sustainability commitment in students' agendas each year.

The district walks the talk by implementing technical upgrades to improve energy efficiency, such as lighting retrofits and solar installations. In addition, three district buildings recently received LEED accreditation:

While technical improvements are important, the district's director of energy management and sustainability says it's a culture shift in the schools that makes the difference.

"Our feeling is that we can get more energy savings from behaviours than from any technical projects," says Alasdair Mackinnon.

So a variety of programs have been used to motivate students and staff to change their ways.

2014 Energy Cup: making behaviour change fun

With the help of BC Hydro's Workplace Conservation Awareness initiative, the district developed the Energy Cup, a one-week competition to see which school could save the most energy through changes in behaviour.

The schools chose initiatives such as Ugly Sweater Day, and "unplugged" concerts at lunch, and promoted habit-changing actions such as turning off unneeded lights.

Last year, all 19 secondary schools participated, and the winning school — Panorama Ridge Secondary School — maintained an impressive 17 per cent energy reduction through to the end of the school year.

This year, says MacKinnon, the program will place more emphasis on persistent savings and a sense of shared community goals. Schools will gain points for energy savings accumulated from October to February, and also for participating in conservation activities such as the Workplace Conservation Awareness initiative, or Surrey Schools iDEAS Leadership program.

"We want to recognize things schools are doing that are contributing to the overall energy conservation of the District," he says.

Student "Energy Ambassadors" help with energy management responsibility

Students also help lead the energy efficiency effort through the Energy Ambassador program, a partnership between school teams, school districts, and BC Hydro.

The program helps students connect with peers across the district and take part in energy use decisions and sustainable actions for their school.

MacKinnon says participation in the program is a positive indicator of how the district's conservation culture is building. "Last year, 11 secondary schools signed up for the program, and seven of them received [Conservation Project] grants," he says. "That represented a huge jump in involvement. To get the grants, those schools had to be very organized and really perform."

Coordination helps people see shared goals

With the variety of energy-saving initiatives underway, showing how they all fit together has been challenging.

"I've always seen the connection between programs, but the audience at the schools has been getting confused," says MacKinnon. "It hasn't always been clear to students that they're all part of one big effort to save energy and create a sustainable community."

This year, organizers aim to solve that problem through closer coordination. They're sharing information through an online site, and ensuring outreach for each program highlights how it contributes to the big picture.

Another challenge is maintaining motivation in a diverse population that changes each year. "We are few, trying to engage a huge audience," says Mackinnon. "So we rely on the cooperation of other people, and on delegating some of the energy watch responsibility to the students.

"This is a community, and we're all working toward a sustainable future."