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ARRA Funds Empower Schools to Power Down

The Recovery Act has given a boost to shovel-ready, energy-efficiency projects in districts across the nation.
President Obama, with Vice President Joe Biden, signs the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science in Colorado on Feb. 17, 2009.

When President Obama first signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, he took much criticism for spending more money—$787 billion more—when the nation was reeling from decades-old debt, a more than 9 percent unemployment rate and a mortgage crisis. But this measure has allowed public school district leaders to invest in cost-effective, energy-efficient facilities projects faster than they would have if they didn't have the federal funds.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, ARRA offered unprecedented opportunities for state and local governments to reduce energy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and create jobs through implementing clean energy programs. At least $33.6 billion has been broken up and allocated to various departments and agencies to dole out to states, which in turn have filtered the money to various school districts to renovate or build new facilities, according to the 21st Century School Fund, a nonprofit organization designed to improve urban public school facilities.

Some of the funds have been allocated for Qualified School Construction Bonds, which allow districts to borrow money at low or zero interest, saving millions of dollars. "The outcome is energy efficiency that will change school facilities and save money down the line," says Judy Marks, director of the National Clearinghouse of Educational Facilities, which provides information and research on planning, designing, financing, constructing and operating high-performance K12 schools and higher education facilities. "Districts have recognized that one way to cut costs is to make changes in the way facilities operate."

Here is a more in-depth view of some of those projects.

Kentucky's Energy Managers

In the bluegrass state, 36 new positions for energy manager have been created with $5.05 million in ARRA funding. Along with the 14 existing energy managers, these administrators could reach more than 1,000 schools. The state has a total of 174 school districts serving 1,400 public school buildings. The School Energy Managers Project (SEMP) encourages districts to partner with neighboring school systems to maximize the use of the managers, according to Ronald Willhite, the Kentucky School Boards Association's (KSBA) SEMP manager. Willhite says the program's roots lie in a state statute enacted in mid-2008 that was designed to address the rising costs of energy, which were straining district budgets.

Although Kentucky is a low-cost energy state, the statute requires that school districts enroll in the Kentucky Energy Efficiency Program for Schools (KEEPS), which provides training and technical assistance to the state's energy managers. KEEPS is administered by the Kentucky Pollution Prevention Center, a part of the J.B. Speed School of Engineering at the University of Louisville.

An electrician installs new electronic ballast and energy efficient T8 fluorescent light bulbs in a classroom at another school in the Prince William County Public Schools.

The state statute also requires that the Kentucky Pollution and Prevention Center (KPPC) begin reporting to the state legislature on or before December 2011, and annually thereafter, the status of each district's energy management plans and anticipated savings therefrom. Willhite says he encourages the energy managers to follow the seven-step process outlined on the Energy Star Web site.

Energy Star is a joint program of the EPA and the Department of Energy helping consumers and businesses to save money and protect the environment through purchasing energy-efficient products and adopting energy-saving practices. With the help of Energy Star, Americans saved an amount of energy in 2009 alone equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions from 30 million cars—all while saving nearly $17 billion on their utility bills.

The Energy Star process includes these strategic steps: (1) make a commitment, (2) assess performance, (3) set goals, (4) create an action plan, (5) implement the action plan, (6) evaluate progress, and (7) recognize achievements.

Making a commitment, says Willhite, occurs by adopting an energy policy, hiring an energy manager, and establishing a district energy team, while assessing performance involves reviewing utility bills, establishing baseline data, and performing building assessments to identify potential opportunities for district savings. "We believe the energy managers, by following this strategic process, can establish a sustained effort that focuses on energy efficiency and making wise choices over time," Willhite says.

For example, a district might be paying utility costs for a building that is no longer used as a district building and "just fell off the radar screen," he says. By becoming informed about utility tariff s and persistently reviewing bills, district officials can avoid inadvertent costs. Willhite adds that since coming on board in July, the energy managers have been busy getting acquainted with their districts, collecting baseline data, forming teams, and auditing utility bills.

All of the public school districts have adopted an energy policy, and many, under the leadership of the energy manager assisted by the KEEPS staff, have formed district energy teams. In addition, some energy managers have established teams in each school within the district. And KEEPS engineers have begun performing building energy assessments, Willhite says. To date, energy managers have identified nearly $700,000 in savings by correcting for billing errors, such as misapplication of a rate schedule, disconnecting service where it is no longer needed, and correcting meter reading errors and inappropriate application of sales tax.

Idaho's Hope for Sun

When you think about harnessing solar energy, you probably think of states like Arizona, California, Florida and New Mexico—which have plenty of it and have benefited from ARRA funding. You wouldn't necessarily think of Idaho. But solar energy is exactly what that state is considering in order to save school districts hundreds of thousands of dollars in energy costs.

Although Idaho is a low-cost energy state, meaning conventional energy sources are relatively cheap in Idaho compared to other states, it does have very good solar potential, mainly in the southern part of the state and in the warmer months. Idaho's Solar Panels for Schools Project, administered by the state's Office of Energy Resources, is investing $2.5 million of ARRA funds into five to 10 pilot projects to determine how valuable solar energy could be to the northwestern state, according to Paul Kjellander, the program administrator.

A new gas valve and piping and new hot water supply and return headers were installed in one school at Prince William County Public Schools as part of the boiler replacement project at some of the district's biggest energy consumers.

Some of the questions on solar energy include the cost of integrating the new energy technology in the already existing power system and how to maintain and operate the system, he says. "Is having a large-scale utility-sized solar project the most cost-effective [energy project] in the state today?" Kjellander asks. "No, it's not. But at some point, it may well be," he says, adding that the pilot project may provide answers for how solar energy might be integrated into the system.

Solar energy providers are growing in Idaho, and even Idaho Power, which is the largest utility company in the state, has installed some solar panels on buildings, Kjellander says. District leaders will be able to apply to have one school building be part of the pilot project, which will start next spring. It will be a competitive process that will be based in part on how energy efficient their buildings already are. "We want to see it on buildings that are geared to use less energy and have the potential not to waste it, and kick the solar energy back into the system," Kjellander says.

The projects in the pilot program will be designed to collect data on how much power is being used and how much money is being spent. "If we can find a resource that matches our consumption, could it or should it be priced more?" Kjellander asks. "Does solar fit the bill? As we look at school buildings, what are the price points as we look at solar technology?"

He says a 50-year-old school building can benefit from solar power because the payback usually starts to kick in after 20 years. The solar project is part of a bigger ARRA-funded, $17 million K12 Energy Efficiency Project that includes school renovations and audits of school buildings across Idaho—including improving HVAC systems and lighting, Kjellander says.

"This is a win-win that saves every taxpayer in the state of Idaho," Kjellander says. "Especially in this recession, the question is how to get the biggest bang for your money. And the project became a natural. It was a two-pronged approach, with the first phase including energy audits and tune-ups in all the schools. Schools get to reduce their energy consumption—and taxpayers don't have to pay as much—so they can spend more on other expenses, like textbooks."

Kjellander adds that the ARRA funds made the project possible. "It was something that was on the list of ideas, but the question was: Where is the money coming from?" he says. "This made it possible to move more aggressively and sooner."

Using Wood to Fuel Cold Winters

In 2008, the Winnisquam Regional School District in Tilton, N.H., embarked on a three-year journey to improve energy efficiency. Honeywell conducted an audit of the district's five school buildings and made recommendations for energy savings and upgrades. "We decided that we would conduct energy upgrades throughout all five schools, including [more energy-efficient] lighting, insulation and outside building upgrades," says Superintendent Tammy Davis. "We looked at a biomass plant concept, the feasibility of it, where it would be located, if we had the space to do it, and what the cost would be."

After conducting extensive research and developing a plan, Ian Raymond, community member and parent, presented the idea to voters, who ended up voting yes in 2009 for the $3.5 million project, which was covered with ARRA funds. "The plant is going to give us higher quality for our dollar in utility savings, and it's going to help us reduce the carbon emissions in our environment," Davis says.

The biomass plant, which was completed in October, now sits behind the high school, about 300 yards from the middle school, and heats both schools. The plant was chosen to fuel the two schools because they consume the most energy of all the schools, Davis says. The plant is expected to save the district $4.5 million over 25 years.

The metering bin of the new biomass plant at Winnisquam (N.H.) Regional School District has a viewing window and wood chip level sensor. It has a sensor that controls when the furnace needs more wood.

The plant, which started operating in early October, is fueled by wood chips, a by-product from the harvesting of trees. The burned chips fuel steam generators, which some experts say helps reduce the carbon footprint of the two schools, according to Jeff Lamb, the district's facilities director. "Trees are renewable and they are in abundance," he says. "This is a great concept. It's something I think all districts should consider as an alternative way. And it's setting a good example."

Biomass plants are controversial in part due to their release of particulates into the air, but Davis says that scrubbers, which are devices that can remove particulates and/ or gases from exhaust streams, have been placed in the plant's chimney to reduce such emissions. A district maintenance staff member, groundskeeper and supervisor operates the plant and pulls out ashes from the boiler every few days, Lamb says.

Because the plant is automated, however, it doesn't have to be watched 24/7. On really cold days, such as those that go below 10 degrees, the schools' oil and natural gas boilers will help provide energy. The initial energy upgrades alone have saved the district $100,000, Davis says. "I think any savings is extremely important," she adds. "It helps us balance our budget and use those resources for student learning."

The biomass plant will also be used as a learning tool for high school students, as an elective environment-related class, and even as part of the district's Vocational Agricultural Center, which provides horticulture classes.

Virginia's Energy Upgrades

Virginia is using $119 million in ARRA funds to finance 133 energy-efficiency improvements and renovations in local school districts, as well as renewable energy projects for public school buildings across the state. It's good news for the schools, but the state has in the past negotiated with energy service companies to provide guaranteed energy savings to government entities and to implement such projects.

Projects that include improving heating/ cooling and ventilation systems, installing insulation and replacing windows, and adding solar, biomass or wind-power systems will be financed through the Qualified School Construction Bond program and will be selected through a competitive evaluation process. In one district, Prince William County Public Schools, Energy Services Company has been conducting energy audits and suggesting cost-saving measures for the past two years.

Construction workers install the fascia and shadow boards to the biomass building behind the high school at Winnisquam Regional School District.

Using ARRA funds, the district hired Pepco Energy Services to implement a comprehensive energy savings performance contract project for C.D. Hylton Senior High School, Benton Middle School and Parkside Middle School. The $2.4 million contract will provide energy conservation steps, including lighting upgrades, water conservation in school bathrooms, and boiler and chiller replacements at some of the district's biggest energy consumers per square foot, according to Dave Beavers, the district's supervisor of planning and financial services.

The project also includes installing a 16-kilowatt photovoltaic solar system at Hylton High, which will harvest about 21,750 kilowatts of electricity annually. It will be monitored via a Web-based data logging and reporting program that will log the daily, weekly and monthly-to-date performance and will be open to the school's faculty and students. Although Virginia isn't known for its large sun exposure, Beavers says the system is designed as a demonstration project "to see if we can make this work to determine if it's the type of technology we want to pursue in the future."

Over the 10-year contract, the Prince William County Public Schools will save $2.36 million and will reduce energy and water costs by at least 27 percent. The project is something the district has wanted to do but until now has never had the funds for. "The energy-efficiency upgrades are something we identified as a need, and we desired to be more conscious of our energy use," Beavers says. "We also wanted to improve our infrastructure, and the opportunity of the ARRA funds really sparked us to move toward the actual implementation of these measures."

Solving Problems

Overall, ARRA funding for public school projects has put contractors to work, revitalized the business of alternative and renewable energy resources, and helped school districts save money, while also minimizing the adverse impacts on the environment for years to come. Judy Marks of the National Clearinghouse of Educational Facilities concludes, "The positive effects of stimulus spending for energy-efficient schools around the country will be felt by school districts for many years to come."

Angela Pascopella is senior editor.