"Energy Efficiency is at the heart of energy affordability." Tony Earley, Chairman, CEO and President of PG&E Corporation

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New Refrigerator, Lessons Learned on Energy Efficiency Earn Students A+

By David Kligman

Diane Dunnigan’s science lessons inspired her students to organize a can drive to raise money to replace two old refrigerators in their school’s teacher’s lounge. (Photos by David Kligman.)

EL DORADO HILLS—Last fall, a science teacher in this Sacramento Valley community challenged her students to find the most inefficient appliance at their middle school.

The students looked at televisions. They looked at microwaves. But nothing wasted as much energy as what they found in the teacher’s lounge—two side-by-side decades-old refrigerators.

“One’s from the ‘80s, one’s from the ‘90s,” said Diane Dunnigan, who teaches at Marina Village Intermediate School.

Learn more about the California model for energy efficiency

As part of their energy audit, the students plugged a device known as a “Kill a Watt” into the refrigerator to measure its energy use. They found that the refrigerators use twice the amount of energy as one Energy Star refrigerator. And one of the refrigerators doesn’t get cold enough due to dust that collects on condenser coils in the back, acting as a kind of insulation.

Rather than just settle for inefficient appliances, the students wanted to replace the refrigerators. Every week since last August, they have collected cans and bottles from the school and recycled them for money to help fund a new energy-efficient refrigerator. As of last week, the students had earned $742.

Grant arranged to help pay for refrigerator

PG&E community energy manager Nichoel Farris, who last year began working with Marina Village and other area schools on energy efficiency lessons, heard about the youngsters’ recycling project. She approached PG&E community relations representative Geneve Villacres, who arranged a $2,000 grant to the school to help pay the rest of the money needed for the refrigerator.

Dunnigan said the grant means so much to the small district school, especially in today’s cost-cutting environment.

Eighth grade student Crew Winkler collects and recycles cans and bottles at school every week to raise money toward an energy efficient refrigerator.

“I was about as thrilled as I could be,” she said. “We were maybe going to raise $1,000. I’m looking at prices for a refrigerator large enough to meet the staff needs and replace two refrigerators and is energy efficient. I’m thinking, ‘We’re going to have to come up with another fund raiser.’ I was feeling like this was going to be really difficult to do.”

As part of their energy audit, the students also found the school was wasting $1,600 a year on “phantom loads,” energy that’s used when an appliance like a microwave oven is plugged in even if it’s not being used. Dunnigan said any money left over from the PG&E grant will be used to purchase power strips so that excess power isn’t wasted.

Dunnigan said the energy audit is an example of applying science to students’ everyday lives.

“This makes science real for them,” Dunnigan said. “It’s not just some theory, something that I’ve got to memorize and take a test.”

Small efforts can have big impacts

Farris said she and Villacres wanted to reward the school for their energy efficiency as well as the students’ initiative to improve their school. She said the children’s project is the kind of effort needed if California is going to meet its environmental goals.

“It’s kind of like going to back to our grandparents’ era where everything was utilized to its fullest extent,” Farris said. “Today we call it sustainability but back then it was just making every dollar count because waste was a waste of money. It’s almost like we’re returning to that set of values.”

As a thank you to the school, Farris and Villacres visited Marina Valley Intermediate last week and worked with Dunnigan on a lesson to demonstrate how energy efficiency translates to reducing carbon in the atmosphere.

The students worked in teams to decorate cardboard boxes—each representing a kilogram of carbon that can be reduced by turning off your computer at night or washing laundry in cold water. They wrote their personal pledges on the boxes for how they plan to reduce energy.

Science students at Marina Village Middle School display their finished project representing a kilogram of carbon that can be reduced by turning off your computer at night.

“A lot of times when we talk about carbon it’s like we’re talking about unicorns,” Farris told the children. “It’s something you’ve never seen. What you’ve done is make the invisible visible.”

As for that new energy-efficient refrigerator, teachers at the middle school will find it when they return this fall after the summer break.

“It’s going to be good to know we earned it for the school,” eighth grader Gianna Bedwani said. “It’ll be a good surprise for them.”

E-mail David Kligman at david.kligman@pge.com

This story originally appeared on pgecurrents.com.