Montana Lt. Gov. Angela McLean

Montana Lt. Gov. Angela McLean gets a tour of Billings Senior High’s energy-saving efforts by Principal Dennis Holmes, left, and head custodian Rod Grotbo on Thursday morning. Oct. 2, 2014. 

Billings schools are leaders in energy conservation and recycling, Lt. Gov. Angela McLean said Thursday during a visit to four of the schools.

At Billings Senior High, McLean described the district’s efforts, which have saved millions of dollars during the past several years, as a model for energy conservation in schools across the state.

“Billings Senior has got it going on,” she said.

It’s just the kind of accomplishment McLean hopes a new state program announced this week will inspire other schools around the state to achieve.

Called SMART Schools, the program offers incentives for students and school officials to take on projects that cut energy bills or expand other conservation efforts.

Incentives include $1,000 awards to the schools that save the most this school year, $500 recycling mini-grants and school energy audits worth $20,000.

SD2 is an example of how “smart, sensible choices” in energy consumption can yield cost savings that are reinvested into school classrooms, McLean said.

“It makes sense for schools like Billings Senior High to retrofit windows, redo lighting and make the changes they have made across the board not only now, but well into the future,” she said.

“We commend your leadership for making that happen,” McLean told a class of students and staff.

Savings have added up since an energy consulting firm hired by the district began upgrading utilities in the 2008-09 school year, said chief financial officer Leo Hudetz. The district continues to keep track of energy use and has saved $3.7 million since the green initiative began.

In terms of atmospheric emissions, the reduction in energy use translates to 22,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide, or a years’ worth of emissions from about 4,500 cars.

All but two of the schools in SD2 are Energy Star certified, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency program. That’s more than one-third of all Energy Star certified buildings in the state.

Senior has accounted for $400,000 of the district’s savings through a variety of means.

The biggest improvement, Principal Dennis Holmes told McLean, was the replacement of original school windows several years ago. The new window trim was designed to match the building’s 1939 aesthetic, and they retain a lot more heat.

“A lot of work, a lot of money, but it definitely paid off,” Holmes said.

Most of the school has HVAC heating and cooling, and three of the four boilers now run on water instead of steam, which head custodian Rod Grotbo said are much more efficient.

Walking through a hallway, Holmes pointed to small changes, too, like the flat-screen TVs that are programmed to turn on and off at certain times.

Every SD2 elementary school has a recycling program that’s sponsored by a local partner organization, Hudetz said.

Students in the environmental club at Billings Senior High operate their high school’s recycling program for plastic and aluminum, while another group of students handles paper products, student council members Justin Dreessen and Brianna Stroebe said.

The seniors said that to them, recycling has always been a part of their Senior High experience. But fountains designed to fill entire water bottles were recently installed, which the students said have become very popular.

“That’s like a game changer right there,” Dreessen said.

“We just want students to be more aware of how we’re being efficient and can be more efficient,” said council member Mariah Welch, also a senior. The student council plans to put most of its efforts this year into its support for the food bank and Relay for Life, Welch said.

Students chatted with McLean in the school’s courtyard, where an idea was raised for a barbecue this spring, ideally to celebrate further strides in conservation.

“We could do a challenge with West,” Dreessen suggested.

“That always makes it more of an incentive, to beat the rival school,” he said.

To participate in one of the SMART Schools challenges, visit www.governor.mt.gov/Home/SmartSchools.