By Jody Steinberg

With Earth Day just around the corner on April 22, many of us are asking, “Can I really go green, and if I do, will it really make a difference?”

Absolutely, say students and administrators from about two dozen area schools that collectively saved more than 668,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity in February, cut their electricity consumption an average of 14.4 percent and reduced their carbon footprint in the 2009 Green Cup Challenge.

The challenge, a student-driven program of the Green Schools Alliance, is in its fourth year nationally and second in Georgia. It started as a competition among a handful of boarding schools to conserve energy and increase green initiatives across campuses and in the curriculum.

After hearing about the challenge, Nancy Faux, facilities and services business manager at the Westminster Schools, and Marist science teacher Kevin Lisle helped their students launch the first competition between local private schools in February 2008.

Marist won by a small margin, reducing its energy use by just over 20 percent, compared with Westminster’s 19 percent reduction. Westminster saved 100,000 kilowatt-hours across 16 buildings, worth $9,000 to $10,000, in one month, Faux said.

This year, more than 150 schools in the United States and Canada, including more than 25 in Georgia, registered for the challenge. The Atlanta-area schools that participated in the 2009 Green Cup Challenge include Atlanta International School, Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School, The Lovett School, Pace Academy and Sophia Academy.

The Paideia School reduced energy use by more than 24 percent to win the 2009 Southeast Green Cup Challenge, but the challenge was a victory for all participating schools. They reduced their carbon dioxide production by thousands of pounds and saved tens of thousands of dollars in electricity costs.

“It’s become a community effort,” Faux said. “And everyone’s a winner. So many schools have thanked us for bringing them this program and helping them make a measurable difference.”

Schools took baseline measurements from which energy savings were determined, using a formula that includes the size of each campus, the number of structures, additions, changes and three years’ worth of electrical bills for a four-week billing cycle ending in late February. Most schools involved their students in assessing energy consumption and promoting campuswide changes through signage, educational programs, and such creative methods as producing short films.

“Participation in the challenge is an excellent opportunity for a school to publicize the importance of energy conservation and to motivate its students to develop sustainable habits,” Lisle said.

Some schools have taken their projects further. Numerous Westminster teams have won the lucrative Lexus Eco Challenge. Marist plans to permanently incorporate the energy-saving changes and other green initiatives.

Westminster and other schools have become so proactive in conservation that it is now standard operating procedure. “It will be pretty hard to improve our energy savings,” Faux said. “But participating is more of a statement. If it gets schools to be very conscious of the environment, conservation and not wasting resources, then the challenge has achieved its goals.”