As 2008 draws to a close, nearly every education institution in the United States is struggling with budget woes stemming from the nation's economic downturn. Some schools and universities may use the dire financial situation as a reason to back away from pursuing efforts to make their campuses more environmentally friendly. But fear of busting the budget shouldn't prevent administrators from exploring green design, equipment and operations.

Countless ways exist for schools and universities to incorporate sustainable strategies into their decisions and operations. Some can add to costs in the short run, but others can be carried out affordably — and provide substantial economic and ecological benefits in the long run.

Some institutions may feel comfortable with a few baby steps into the green world, while others may be ready to commit totally to environmental consciousness. Here are 10 areas in which educators and administrators can beef up their green portfolio:

Alternative fuels

Every day, thousands of school buses rumble down the nation's roads, transporting millions of students to school — and at the same time consuming tons of fuel and spewing tons of pollution into the air. In addition, school districts and universities have numerous other service vehicles to haul materials and equipment or conduct maintenance work.

Many institutions striving to curtail the amount of pollution they generate and hoping to cut their energy costs have converted some of their fleet to vehicles that use alternative forms of energy, or that are outfitted with pollution-reducing devices.

Some school buses and other heavy-duty vehicles are being powered with compressed natural gas, which is cheaper and less polluting than diesel fuel or gasoline. In Portland, Ore., the school system began 25 years ago using propane to fuel its bus fleet. As of 2007, the Clark County (Nev.) district had 1,450 buses that were powered with biodiesel made from soybean oil. The Poudre (Colo.) district reduces its school bus emissions by using ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel and installing equipment on the buses that reduces the pollution generated from the engine.

Bikes/Walking

Students and staff at schools and universities can cut down on energy consumption and pollution by forgoing fuel-powered transportation to, from and on campus. Many higher-education institutions have created programs that enable students to share or rent bikes.

At Ripon (Wis.) College, the administration goes a step further. Its "Velorution Project" sees the bicycle as "part of the solution to problems of obesity, traffic congestion, fuel consumption, pollution and the erosion of communities to urban sprawl."

To encourage bicycle use instead of cars, Ripon has given a new bicycle to all first-year students that sign a pledge that they will not bring a vehicle to campus during the 2008-09 school year.

"Ripon hopes to break these students of their dependency on cars for transportation and thereby reduce the college's ecological footprint," the school says.

At the K-12 level, many schools are encouraging students to walk or ride bikes instead of riding on a bus or in a parent's car. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has established a program, KidsWalk-to-School, which "aims to increase opportunities for daily physical activity by encouraging children to walk to and from school in groups accompanied by adults."

Water

In addition to energy, school facilities need water to run smoothly. Every day, millions of toilets are flushed, hands and faces are washed, showers are taken, and meals are prepared in education institutions. That takes a huge amount of water, but green advocates argue that schools don't need nearly as much water as they now use.

In "Healthier, Wealthier, Wiser: A Report on National Green Schools," Global Green USA states that schools using green practices can reduce water consumption by 30 percent, compared with a conventional school facility.

Educators and administrators have an abundance of water-conservation techniques to choose from: water-free urinals; low-flow showers and faucets; lower-volume toilets; higher-efficiency irrigation systems; cooling towers maintained or upgraded to use water more efficiently; use of reclaimed water instead of potable water for certain functions, such as landscaping or toilets; and collecting rainwater in retention ponds for irrigating school grounds.

Washington University in St. Louis is pursuing another way to conserve water — or at least the energy used to provide drinking water. The school is working to eliminate the use of bottled water on its campus. Campus officials say the expense and energy expended to bottle water is excessive, compared with the cost of having students use water from a drinking fountain or faucet.

Educational tools

Schools and universities that incorporate sustainable design strategies and green operations into their facilities often use those facilities as a way to teach students and staff about the effectiveness of the green practices.

Schools powered in part with photovoltaic cells can set up displays that show students how much solar energy is being generated. Other monitors can be set up to show students the amount of energy being consumed in a facility and how various operations and equipment alter the usage pattern. Computer programs also can be set up to help students keep track of energy usage and costs.

A school facility can be designed in a way that leaves building systems exposed so that students better understand how those systems function.

Paper reduction/recycling

Education institutions go through tons of paper in worksheets, class handouts, notepaper, requisition forms and other bureaucratic documents. Many schools and universities have established programs to reduce the use of paper and encourage recycling.

At the University of California at Berkeley, students have formed the "One Side Clean (OSC) Paper Re-Use Project." As the name implies, the project's aim is to get students and staff members to reuse paper that has been used on only one side. OSC bins with reusable paper have been placed throughout campus in computer labs, administrative offices and other areas.

Berkeley also has begun using paper with at least 30 percent recycled content and urges departments to use both sides of a sheet of paper when printing or copying material.

Recognition

As green school design and construction has become a widely sought goal, organizations have stepped forward to help guide education administrators along the green path, and to provide them recognition when they have achieved an environmentally friendly school facility.

The most well-known of the green rating systems is the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification process, established by the U.S. Green Building Council. The LEED program assesses the design and construction of a facility and awards points for incorporating environmentally friendly elements. A platinum rating is the highest level of certification, followed by gold, silver and certified. Last year, the council created a specialized rating system geared for K-12 facilities.

The Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS) has put together volumes that spell out the criteria needed to design and build a high-performance education facility. The CHPS created a rating system based on the criteria that provides benchmarks for schools to meet to be considered a high-performance school.

The Green Building Initiative is another organization that seeks to identify sustainably designed facilities. Its Green Globes rating system is based on a program that began in Canada. Earlier this year, Bethke Elementary School in the Poudre (Colo.) district became the first school in the United States to be recognized by the Green Globes system.

Carbon neutrality

The overall goal of all these energy- and resource-saving conserving steps is to bring about a more healthful planet that will survive and prosper for generations to come. College and university presidents have come together to commit their institutions to long-term efforts to rein in energy consumption and combat global warming.

The higher-education administrators who have signed The American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment have promised to make their institutions carbon neutral — removing as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they generate.

Representatives of about 600 colleges and universities have signed the pledge. They have agreed to complete a comprehensive inventory of all greenhouse gas emissions on their campuses within one year and update the inventory every other year thereafter. They also promise within two years to develop an action plan for achieving climate neutrality on their campuses.

"Campuses that address the climate challenge by reducing global warming emissions and by integrating sustainability into their curriculum will better serve their students and meet their social mandate to help create a thriving, ethical and civil society," the commitment states.

Local food

One sustainable practice becoming more popular among schools and universities is the effort to buy and serve food that has been grown or produced locally. Using local food sources enables schools to reduce the energy expended transporting products and benefits the local economy by supporting area farmers.

The National Farm to School Network has been formed to encourage this trend. The movement is supported by eight regional lead agencies; more than 8,700 schools in 2,000-some school districts are involved in the network.

In addition to providing locally grown food, the Farm to School program promotes teaching students about composting, establishing school gardens, offering cooking demonstrations and conducting farm tours.

Cleaning

A school facility may be designed and built using sustainable strategies, but once the building is open for business, the cleaning and maintenance operation can undermine the environmental friendliness the planners intended.

The Healthy Schools Campaign has created The Quick & Easy Guide to Green Cleaning in Schools to help maintenance staffs at education institutions choose the right products and follow the appropriate practices to achieve a safe and healthful cleaning operation.

The guide spells out five steps as an overview for establishing a green-cleaning operation: Use green-cleaning products, use green equipment and supplies, adopt green-cleaning procedures, use paper and plastic products that are green, and share the responsibility.

"It is important to communicate with administrators, staff, teachers, students, visitors and vendors about green cleaning and educate them about their role in maintaining environmental improvements and preventing future problems," the guide states.

Daylighting

Using natural light to illuminate learning spaces is one of the green practices that has been embraced most widely by the education community. Daylighting strategies enable schools and universities to save energy and money by reducing the use of artificial light, and, if they are designed effectively, can provide a learning environment that improves student performance.

Effective daylighting involves more than just adding windows to let light into a space. The light needs to be reflected and diffused so that it is spread throughout a space and doesn't cause a glare that can detract from concentration and learning.

School daylighting strategies typically use a combination of clerestory windows, light shelves, skylights, baffles, louvers and overhangs to admit enough light to provide a comfortable learning environment that relies less on artificial lights.

Mike Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at mkennedy@asumag.com.