The Green Cup Challenge is a national inter-school energy-conservation competition designed to reduce schools’ electricity use. Nationally, 161 schools competed in this year’s competition, and the winner was PS 166, a public elementary school on New York’s Upper West Side.

In just four weeks (Jan. 15-Feb. 12, at peak winter energy use), PS 166 reduced its energy consumption by 17.75 percent.  “The school saved $1,845 on its electricity bill (15,380 kilowatt hours) and prevented 20,609 pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) from being released into the environment,” according to Ozgem Omektekin, the Department of Education’s director of sustainability. Katy Perry, the competition’s program director, used a carbon calculator to assess PS 166’s impact, and she found that PS 166’s energy saving was equal to taking two cars off the road for one year, planting 10 trees or replacing 374 incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent ones. And the school accomplished all this in just four weeks!

What extreme measures did PS 166 take to win? As it turns out, none. They posted signs reminding everyone to turn off unnecessary lights, to set thermostats to 68 degrees Fahrenheit, to power down computers, and to close windows and doors. Custodial staff turned off heat and boilers at night.

Although no extreme measures were taken, a little vigilance and visual incentives were required. A Green Team composed of parents, science teachers, and fifth-grade “Climate Captains” walked through the school every Wednesday to make sure community members were doing their part. Parents and teachers received weekly communiqués about the school’s progress. And a large 3-D “Powerometer” was displayed in the school lobby to show whether meter readings were going up or down.

Perhaps more important than reducing energy consumption by nearly 18 percent, the kids learned about the impact their behavior has on the environment. Emily Fano, co-chair of PS 166’s Green Committee and the school’s Green Cup Challenge coordinator, said she received numerous emails from fellow parents who said their children were now turning off lights at home. Imagine if the 1,600 public schools in New York City took the Green Cup Challenge and reduced their energy consumption by nearly 20 percent. Think of the numbers of trees we would be planting or cars we would be removing from the road.

We hope educators and parents will be inspired by PS 166’s example and take the simple steps listed above to reduce their energy consumption. But relying on people’s altruism is not quite the same as instituting a policy that will guarantee success. We discovered that the Department of Citywide Administrative Services pays the utility bills for the New York City public schools. We’d like to propose a policy whereby the money a school saves on its electric bills is given to the school. Such a policy would not only give schools a huge incentive to reduce their energy consumption, it would also give our city schools money they need at a time of severe budget cuts. Opportunities to raise money for our schools that do not cost our government anything which also help to fight global warming are few and far between. The mayor should seize this idea and make it happen.