Power Lines Blog

Teach them public power and learn XBoxes



Original post: May 14, 2014

One of the things I really like about my new job as CEO of the American Public Power Association is getting to visit our members — public power utilities and joint action agencies — in different parts of the country. In April, I was in Key West, Fla.  This month, I was in Sioux Falls, SD, to visit with the members of Missouri River Energy Services, one of our biggest joint action agencies. MRES provides power supply and a host of other services to public power distribution systems in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Iowa. At the MRES meeting, I heard a great presentation about how the agency is tackling one of the most vexing issues the electric utility industry has to deal with — the lack of understanding by our own retail customers of what it takes to make the lights come on when they flip the switch.

MRES did a survey of its utility members in 2012, in which it asked whether its members would like to participate in a school education program. 80 percent of the members said yes. So MRES did a pilot program in the 2013-2014 school year for four member school systems. Karen Weeden of MRES staff spearheaded this effort, which was aimed at 5th graders (and through them, their parents). The program had several goals: help the students understand what public power is and how it works in their communities; introduce them to “Bright Energy Solutions,” the MRES energy efficiency program; and help them understand how energy is produced and what they can do reduce their energy usage.

MRES worked with Resource Action Programs to develop a kit for each student with 3 CFL light bulbs, an LED night light, and a workbook. The teacher got additional teaching materials, including posters and an energy monitor. The lessons discussed both renewable and non-renewable sources of electricity, forms of energy, and energy efficiency. Students measured their energy consumption at home, calculated energy savings on bills, and learned about peak usage periods and demand response. Conservation tips were included with the students’ worksheets. At home, along with their parents, the students did energy check-ups; searched for phantom loads; surveyed the energy sources for their heating and hot water; and did temperature checks. RAP ensured that the curriculum was accredited and met the relevant state requirements, which helped teachers integrate the material into their lesson plans. Member utilities participated by doing classroom activities and handing out the completion certificates. One member even added a tour of its local wind farm for the students.

Based on subsequent surveys, 100 percent of the teachers said they would like to use the program again. One teacher reported that he had to start the program earlier than he had intended, because once his kids saw the boxes, they really wanted to know what was in them. 73 percent of students installed the first CFL and 64 percent installed the second one. Over 85 percent installed the LED nightlight. 79 percent of students reported that their families changed the way they used energy. 84 percent of the students said the program was “great” or “pretty good.” One student, in his thank you note to his utility, said his family had saved money, but that he still intended to use his Xbox and suggested that MRES should buy one too!

One moral of the story: public power systems need to engage with their communities and highlight their contributions, and programs like MRES’ school initiative are a great way to do that. But every bit as important is the education of our future retail customers. These young people need to understand just what it takes to produce and deliver their power. Kicking off that process with a “teachable moment” in the 5th grade is a great way to start.

If you already have a public power awareness or education program for the young people in your community, we’d love to hear what you’re doing, and see pictures or videos. Tell us about your program (add to comments below or email us) so we can share. And if you’d like ideas for what you can do, let us know (email us) how we can help.

Update: Jul 8, 2014

After I wrote about the importance of educating our future customers and the MRES program, I was pleased to hear from members around the country about similar programs they are doing. I wanted to share what I’ve learned about three more outstanding programs and encourage you to think about how you can replicate any or all of them in your community.

Alex Dzurick, Energy Educator at City of Columbia Water & Light, reports that his utility has several K-12 focused educational outreach programs to educate future public power customers. Energy Choices is a program targeting 6th and 7th graders where utility staff conduct brief presentations at schools on thermal energy and teach students to calculate the energy usage and cost of heating their shower water. Students are given kits to do the measurements at home. The teacher grades the results, and often shares them with the utility. The Saturday Science program takes 8th graders out to sites around Columbia to experience science outside the classroom, on Saturday mornings in the winter/spring. This year, students built a solar cell using copper plates, explored circuits and their role in using solar for power production, and enjoyed bucket truck rides from linemen. Bottle Battle is a new program that offers an engineering challenge for 9th grade honors physics students. This year students designed insulation for a mock water heater (a plastic bottle) over 3 days at about 80 minutes each. Students collected data, used temperature probes to graph heat loss, saw their bottles through an infrared camera, and competed to see who could achieve the best insulation-to-cost ratio. Budgeting for Energy is a 30-minute presentation for 10th graders in personal finance classes mandated as a graduation requirement in Missouri public schools. The program shows students how energy is priced, where it is used in the home, and how to reduce energy use in a smart, efficient way to save money for the future. In addition to these four larger projects, the City of Columbia Water and Light often finds opportunities to educate on a smaller scale.

2014 Energy Education Event (7)
Lauren Blank, project coordinator at Avant Energy, says the Minnesota Municipal Power Agency knows that “customers often do not understand what we do nor how we do it,” and that it’s important to start young in improving customer knowledge. The agency’s Energy Education Program, started in 2010, has already drawn participation from more than 2,400 students in 2014. The program focuses on 4th graders, with a curriculum specially designed to integrate into Minnesota’s 4th grade science standards. Students learn how electricity is generated and how it impacts their lives. Segments include ways to generate electricity from conventional sources such as coal or natural gas as well as from renewable sources including wind, biomass, hydro, and solar. Students also learn about energy conservation and how they can save energy at home. An Energy Education Workbook is given to all students and teaches how energy is generated, transmitted, and used. For schools within a reasonable bus ride to Faribault, Minn., the program offers an interactive tour at Faribault Energy Park (FEP), MMPA’s 300 MW-capacity natural gas generating facility. While visiting the facility, students view the control room, steam turbine, and wind turbine. The 4th graders rotate through educational stations located throughout the facility and its wetlands park. Each station focuses on a specific energy lesson ranging from – the concept of energy and energy sources to how a power plant, such as FEP, generates electricity and provides power to their homes. For schools without easy access to FEP, an in-school assembly is hosted by MMPA in cooperation with the Science Museum of Minnesota and local utilities to provide information about energy production and conservation. Avant Energy of Minneapolis, MMPA’s long-time management partner, designed the Energy Education Program and manages its implementation.

Under a grant received from the American Public Power Association’s Demonstration of Energy & Efficiency Developments (DEED) program, Rochester Public Utilities conducted the Minnesota Student Energy Project from 2009 to 2013 to help students in the community’s three high schools install solar panels in their schools for a hands-on learning experience in sustainability and cutting carbon emissions. The program covered two-thirds of the cost of solar photovoltaic (PV) installation at each school while the school was responsible for raising the remaining one-third of required funding. Students were involved in fundraising and program management and also learned to build and install solar panels. The solar panels actually cut into each school’s energy consumption by 1 percent and also represented the schools’ clean energy initiatives and served as visual learning tools for all students. Rochester Public Utilities highly recommends this hands-on learning approach for future customers but recommends that it be paired with embedding energy education into the school curriculum and also with planning how to sustain long-term projects given high student turnover.

Sue Kelly

Sue Kelly

President and CEO