With financial assistance from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the Montana State Energy Program (MTSEP) launched the Saving Money and Resources Today (SMART) Schools Challenge, a friendly competition to help school districts reduce energy and save money. Since the launch of the challenge, 113 participating school districts have saved more than $350,000 in energy costs.

Energy costs are the largest operating expense for school districts after salaries and benefits, and in recent years those costs have increasingly strained budgets. America’s schools spend more on energy than on textbooks and computers combined. Fortunately, energy is one of the few expenses that can be decreased without negatively affecting classroom instruction.

The SMART Schools Challenge, which launched in 2013, is divided into three sub-challenges: 1) Energy Challenge; 2) Recycling Challenge; and 3) Green Schools Challenge. By enrolling in a sub-challenge, schools receive a scholarship for building operator certification training, free technical assistance from the MTSEP, and a SMART Schools mentor from the Montana Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council.

A few years after the challenge launched, the MTSEP began to notice a lack of participation in the Energy Efficiency sub-challenge as implementing energy conservation measures often requires approval from school district administrators, whereas other challenges, such as the recycling challenge, can be led by students and teachers.

In an effort to address this challenge, MTSEP applied and was selected for a DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), State Energy Program 2016 competitive award to design and add a leadership tier to the Energy Efficiency sub-challenge. The leadership tier was designed as an exclusive peer-cohort consisting of competitively selected school districts that could demonstrate support from administrators at the district level. Six school districts were ultimately selected for participation in the leadership tier. Leadership teams consisting of facility managers, maintenance supervisors, and school staff, were each awarded $20,000 to use towards the development of energy management plans. The teams also received access to hands-on resource efficiency training events.

At the end of the DOE award period of performance, three of the participating school districts were seeing potential energy savings. Montana's Anaconda School District began implementing audit recommendations, estimated to save the district more than $97,000 per year; the Hinsdale School District designed a new HVAC system and a lighting retrofit; and the Livingston School District installed a utility tracking system and energy display to inform students and staff on energy use at the school. All three districts used audits and training to develop teaching curriculum for the 2018 and 2019 school years.

"We were very pleased that the applications received represented a diverse range of districts in terms of demographics and experience in energy efficiency," said Bonnie Rouse, MTSEP Project Manager.
"Livingston School District is one of our green school leaders and has historically been very active in all SMART School Challenges, whereas Hinsdale is in the beginning stage of learning about energy efficiency opportunities.”

Moving forward, a portion of MTSEP’s DOE State Energy Program annual funding will continue to support the technical assistance and peer-consortium aspects of the SMART Schools Energy Efficiency leadership tier.

The Weatherization and Intergovernmental Programs Office (WIP) is part of the EERE and supports DOE's mission to create greater energy affordability, security, and resiliency. WIP's State Energy Program provides funding and technical assistance to states, territories, and the District of Columbia to enhance energy security, advance state-led energy initiatives, and maximize the benefits of decreasing energy waste. The State Energy Program emphasizes the state’s role as the decision-maker and administrator for program activities tailored to their unique resources, delivery capacity, and energy goals.