What Type Of Energy Do Schools Use?

Schools use various forms of energy to power their facilities and operations. The types of energy used can significantly impact a school’s budget, carbon footprint, and sustainability goals. Understanding school energy usage helps identify opportunities to adopt cleaner and more affordable options.

The main energy sources utilized by schools are electricity, natural gas, fuel oil, propane, and renewable options like solar or wind power. The choices made regarding energy supply and consumption directly affect students by shaping the learning environment. It’s important for school stakeholders to make informed decisions about energy use.

This article provides an overview of the primary energy types used in schools and discusses key factors like costs, environmental impact, and strategies to improve efficiency. It aims to help school leaders evaluate their current energy profile and identify potential areas for improvement.


Electricity is the most common energy source that schools use. It powers indoor and outdoor lighting, computers, tablets, kitchen appliances, heating and cooling systems, and more. Electricity allows schools to provide the modern learning environment that students need. Most electricity comes from power plants that burn fossil fuels like coal, natural gas, and oil to generate power. Some schools are able to get electricity from renewable sources like solar panels or wind turbines, but this is still relatively uncommon. Electric utilities distribute electricity through power lines and transformers to bring it into schools. Most classrooms, hallways, gyms, auditoriums and offices rely heavily on electricity for lighting, ventilation, technology, and other needs.

Natural Gas

Natural gas is a common energy source used by many schools. It is most often used for heating, providing hot water, powering stoves and ovens in cafeterias, and other applications that require a flame or heat.

Most schools have natural gas-fired boilers to heat water that is circulated through radiators or vents for space heating. Newer high-efficiency natural gas condensing boilers can operate at over 90% efficiency, compared to around 80% efficiency for older natural gas boilers.

Natural gas is also used in kitchen stoves and ovens in school cafeterias to cook meals for students. Commercial natural gas cooking equipment can cook food quicker and at higher temperatures compared to electric stoves.

Upgrading to new, energy efficient natural gas equipment and ensuring proper maintenance and operation can help schools maximize efficiency and cost savings when using natural gas.

Fuel Oil

Fuel oil used to be a fairly common source of energy for heating systems in schools, especially older buildings constructed in the first half of the 20th century. Fuel oil, also known as heating oil, is a liquid petroleum product produced from crude oil distillation and used as a fuel for furnaces and boilers.

However, fuel oil has largely fallen out of favor for heating school buildings over the past few decades. There are several reasons for this:

  • Fuel oil can be expensive and volatile in pricing. The price of heating oil tends to follow global crude oil prices, which can spike at times.

  • Burning fuel oil leads to more air pollution than natural gas or propane. This became a bigger concern as air quality standards tightened over the years.

  • Fuel oil heating systems require more maintenance than other options. Tanks need to be monitored for leaks and refilled periodically.

  • Spills from storage tanks have led to environmental contamination issues at some schools.

For these reasons, many school districts have phased out fuel oil heating in favor of systems that burn cleaner natural gas or use electric heat pumps. Some states and municipalities have even banned fuel oil for heating in new school constructions. While it still meets energy needs where infrastructure exists, fuel oil is on the decline as a heat source for the education sector due to environmental and cost concerns.


Some schools, particularly those in more rural areas, may use propane as an energy source. Propane is commonly used to fuel backup generators, kitchen appliances like stoves and ovens, and heating systems. Using propane provides some key benefits for schools:

  • Propane can be stored on-site, providing energy security if the electrical grid goes down.
  • It is more affordable than electricity in some areas.
  • Propane equipment like generators and furnaces are reliable and require less maintenance than oil or wood-fired systems.

However, propane does come with some safety considerations. It is a flammable gas that is heavier than air, so propane leaks can collect in low spots and create explosion risks. Strict compliance with propane storage tank regulations, leak detection systems, and training staff on safe handling practices are critical in schools using this fuel source.

Overall, propane can be an efficient and cost-effective energy option for schools located away from natural gas infrastructure. With proper safety measures in place, it provides a versatile fuel for backup power, cooking, and heating needs.

Renewable Energy

Schools are increasingly looking to renewable energy sources to power their facilities. Renewable energy comes from natural sources that are constantly replenished, such as sunlight, wind, water, and geothermal heat. Using renewable energy can help schools reduce their carbon footprint and electricity bills while providing educational opportunities for students.

Solar energy is one of the most popular renewable energy options for schools. Solar panels can be installed on rooftops or as solar arrays to convert sunlight into electricity. Solar energy systems at schools provide clean power and can offset electricity purchased from the grid. However, solar panel systems require large upfront investments and sufficient roof or land space. Intermittency of sunlight can also limit solar energy generation at times.

Wind turbines can harness the wind’s kinetic energy and convert it into electricity. While wind power emits no pollution, wind turbines require sufficient wind speeds and may not be suitable for all school locations. The height of wind turbines may also raise concerns. However, once installed, wind power can provide electricity at very low operating costs.

Geothermal energy taps heat stored under the earth’s surface to provide heating and cooling in schools. This can dramatically reduce reliance on fossil fuels for HVAC systems. However, geothermal systems require digging which can increase initial costs. Not all school locations have easy access to quality geothermal resources.

Transitioning to renewable energy sources provides environmental and sustainability benefits for schools. But these technologies can require high upfront capital which may necessitate funding grants. There are also limitations depending on the local climate and school facilities. Overall, renewables present excellent opportunities for schools to incorporate clean energy and sustainability into the educational experience.

Energy Conservation

Schools have many opportunities to reduce their energy usage through conservation and efficiency improvements. One major initiative is LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification for school buildings. LEED promotes sustainable construction practices and energy efficiency in areas like lighting, ventilation, water use, and material selection. Many new schools aim for LEED Silver, Gold, or Platinum certification.

smart thermostat adjusting school heating settings.

Existing schools can also make updates to become more energy efficient. Switching to LED lighting provides major electricity savings, as LED bulbs use at least 75% less energy and last much longer than traditional incandescent bulbs. Installing occupancy sensors and timers allows lights to automatically turn off when not in use. Smart thermostats optimize heating and AC runtimes to conserve energy.

Schools are also adopting more sophisticated building automation systems to control lighting, HVAC, and other systems. These networked controls allow for centralized monitoring and scheduling optimized for occupancy and energy efficiency. Systems can be programmed with weekday and weekend schedules to match school hours and activities.

In addition to technology upgrades, schools promote energy conservation through education and behavior change. Students and staff are encouraged to turn off lights, power down equipment, and report inefficient energy use. Energy awareness campaigns can motivate the school community to actively participate in reducing energy consumption.

Behavior Change

Schools can promote energy awareness and conservation among students and staff through various initiatives. Some ideas include:

  • Making energy conservation part of the curriculum. Lessons can teach students about energy sources, efficiency, climate change impacts, and personal actions they can take to reduce energy use.
  • Running contests between classrooms or grades to see who can reduce their energy consumption the most over a set time period. The winning class gets a prize.
  • Posting reminders to turn off lights and computers when not in use. Creative posters designed by students can help spread the message.
  • Sharing school energy usage data and reduction goals with the community. This creates transparency and accountability.
  • Involving students in completing energy audits to identify wasteful practices. Simple checklists make audits easy to conduct.
  • Organizing no-waste lunch days where disposable packaging is prohibited. This promotes broader environmental awareness.
  • Holding school assemblies with guest speakers who discuss the importance of environmental sustainability and stewardship.

With students and staff working together, schools can embed energy conservation into their culture. This not only reduces costs, but provides valuable real-world learning opportunities for students to apply in life.

Funding and Grants

Schools can take advantage of grants and funding to improve their energy efficiency through audits and upgrades. The U.S. Department of Energy offers energy audits to identify areas for improvement. Based on the audit results, schools may qualify for financial assistance to implement the recommended energy-saving measures.

The DOE provides grant funding to states for energy efficiency improvements in K-12 schools. States can use these grants to offer rebates and incentives to schools for installing energy efficient lighting, HVAC systems, insulation, windows, and other upgrades. The rebates help offset the upfront costs of these projects to make them more affordable for school districts.

Some utility companies also offer rebates and incentives for energy efficiency upgrades in schools. By checking with local utility providers, schools may find additional savings opportunities. Utility companies are motivated to reduce peak demand on the electric grid, so they may partner with schools on win-win programs.

In addition to one-time upgrade incentives, schools can reduce their ongoing energy costs by enrolling in demand response programs. These programs provide bill credits to organizations who agree to reduce electricity use during peak times. Schools can often adjust their HVAC schedules and lighting to participate in demand response without disrupting operations.


In summary, schools utilize a variety of energy sources including electricity, natural gas, fuel oil, propane, and renewable energy. The main factors that determine what energy sources a school uses are cost, availability, infrastructure, and initiatives to increase sustainability and energy efficiency. Most schools rely heavily on electricity and natural gas, with some supplementing with fuel oil, propane, solar panels, wind turbines, geothermal heating/cooling, and other renewables. There are many opportunities for schools to reduce energy usage through behavioral changes, equipment upgrades, building improvements, and securing funding and grants. With thoughtful planning, schools can optimize their energy sources to reduce costs, provide comfortable learning environments, and model sustainability for students.

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