Illuminating Opportunities in Our K-12 Schools

“Light is the most important environmental input, after food and water, in controlling bodily functions” (Wurtman, 1975)

In the middle of a Michigan winter, many of us Michiganders find ourselves yearning for more natural light. The days are short, the sun is scarce, and our interior artificial lighting solutions can often be too glaring or to too dim.

It’s not surprising we may feel affected by the grey winter; light is essential for human functioning. In fact, research suggests that lighting affects people’s health, mood, well-being, and alertness. Furthermore, in addition to the physiological and psychological effects of different types of illumination, research has indicated that specific lighting conditions may also increase human performance.

The Ecology Center and its Michigan Renewable Schools program is evaluating evidence-based connections between improved student performance and health with strategic clean energy investments in our K-12 school facilities: better lighting, ventilation, exterior building shell, etc.

This research linking building efficiency and student performance benefits is extremely encouraging. For example, new LED technology is providing a level of control and adaptability not previously possible. Not only can LEDs significantly reduce energy and operating costs for schools, but implementing “tunable” and “dynamic” solid-state lighting and controls can increase the savings impact as well as enhance student learning environments. Color tuning allows for adjusting the color temperature of the artificial light, which can range from a very warm light (standard incandescent light) to a very bright light rich in blue content (like a mid-day sky). Dynamic lighting provides different lighting solutions for different tasks.

In a study conducted by the University of Mississippi and Philips (lighting manufacturer), students exposed to lighting with higher light intensity and light temperature levels had, by the end of the year, increases in performance that were 33% higher than the increases in performance of the control group. The study raises important questions about the potential for optimizing learning environments with better lighting – particularly for our younger students. Other studies seem to point to younger students being an important target audience for these building lighting enhancements.

Over the last year, the Ecology Center has worked with over 20 school/districts to conduct a baseline energy analysis and discuss a strategy to implement energy efficiency and renewable energy projects within their districts. At least seven districts have expressed interest in LED conversion projects and three districts are discussing demonstration scale solar installations. We hope to see these projects implemented with a number of districts later this year.

Every day, 600,000 at-risk kids attend Michigan schools with inadequate facilities, and clean energy investments are the most cost-effective way of improving their learning environments.  Clean energy investments can save schools 20% or more on annual utility costs – nearly $60 per pupil and $100M statewide – and provide evidence-based achievement gains through improved classroom environments with no upfront costs to schools.

The Michigan Renewable Schools Program provides technical energy assistance and financing guidance to K-12 school representatives. Our experience and resources support K-12 facility efforts to save money, reduce operating expenses, and improve classroom environments.

Published on February 27, 2017