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The Business of: 9 ways to better manage energy in your district

District leaders have lots of options for controlling costs and saving energy
Energy specialists for the Tulsa Public Schools inspect an air-cooled chiller during one of their daily energy audits of facilities throughout the district.
Energy specialists for the Tulsa Public Schools inspect an air-cooled chiller during one of their daily energy audits of facilities throughout the district.

Focusing on energy management can bring large savings to a district. From using special software to enlisting the help of outside advising firms, district leaders can leverage tools and best practices to manage their energy consumption and thereby reduce costs.

Here are nine tips and tricks from district leaders and energy experts for controlling energy costs in your district:

Have a dedicated energy specialist

The Kentucky School Boards Association (KSBA) received an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grant in 2009 that partially funded salaries for energy managers and an advisor overseeing the grant. Neighboring districts shared managers to maximize the grant funds. The purpose of the energy manager would be to focus solely on energy costs and concerns, says Ron Willhite, director of the School Energy Managers Project of KSBA.

“Facility managers have a lot on their hands, with their attention and time split among many projects,” he says. “It’s easy to miss energy savings opportunities in a district unless there is someone focusing on it full-time.”

The first thing the energy managers did was look at utility bills, Willhite says. They recorded how much energy each school was using and found billing errors. Only after that would they examine heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) equipment for efficiency and try to negotiate discounted rates with utility companies.

Of Kentucky’s 174 districts, the 130 districts that participate in the School Energy Managers Project have saved over $30 million since 2009, Willhite says.

The three energy managers in Tulsa Public Schools take a hands-on approach to energy management, says Bob Labass, the district’s director of bond projects and energy management. The managers keep up with equipment maintenance. For HVAC machines, maintenance includes checking that filters and coils are clean and belts are at proper tension on a daily basis, Labass says.

One manager, Les Pace, works with utility companies to keep up with special programs or rebates. “This specialist let us know the electric company’s peak usage time during the summer, which is when rates are higher than normal,” says Labass. “By keeping the lights off in our buildings from 2 p.m. until 7 p.m. from June until September, we are able to save $40,000 each summer.”

The specialists also alerted district architect Chris Hudgins that the single-pane, un-insulated glass windows in use in many Tulsa schools were driving up energy costs.

“Lots of thermal energy was escaping through these windows, so we replaced them with double-pane, tinted glass, saving on heating costs,” Hudgins says.

The energy specialists also check school buildings after sporting events to ensure lights are off and examine pipes for water leaks. The district cut its utility budget by 30 percent, says Superintendent Keith Ballard.

Use software to analyze bills

Software tools like SchoolDude help district leaders understand exactly how much they are spending on energy—all the way down to the school and square foot level.

SchoolDude’s Utility Direct analyzes energy information like BTUs and kilowatt hours that would not get entered into a traditional accounting system, says Lee Prevost, president and co-founder of SchoolDude.

With such detail, school managers can spot problems such as stuck valves: “If heating costs spike one month, leaders can use Utility Direct to isolate data, figure out where the problem is, and then send facilities staff to repair the equipment.” And this avoids costly repairs down the road. The 1,000 districts who use Utility Direct save about 3 to 5 percent in costs each year, even though utility rates are increasing, says Prevost.

Establish teams to ensure buy-in

When Clarkston Community Schools in Michigan was met with the self-imposed challenge of saving $250,000 on energy costs in 2005, an energy committee consisting of board of education representatives, district administrators, food service team members, custodians, teachers, and students was formed to figure out the best ways to cut costs.

“We wanted there to be a dialogue about how we would reduce our energy spend,” says Jessica Kimmel, manager of facilities and energy at Clarkson schools. “We didn’t want just top-level people making decisions that would be affecting everyone in the district.”

The energy committee met frequently and established policies around HVAC temperature setpoints. “Before, we had been bringing the school up to temperature five hours before school began,” Kimmel says. “Through committee negotiations, we changed that to one hour before the start of the school day. Those who would be directly affected by the temperature of the building had their voices heard.” Temperatures are set between 68-72 degrees in the winter, and there is a 5 percent energy savings per degree lowered, according to Kimmel.

Committee meetings served as a forum for compromise. Teachers, for example, gave up personal coffee pots and toasters in the classrooms in exchange for large models in staff lounges.

Construct new buildings wisely

New energy-efficient buildings do not necessarily translate into being more expensive than traditional buildings. “The middle school we constructed in 2010 cost $185 per square foot, which is average for the area,” says Rob Haney, director of support services for Kenton County Schools in Kentucky. “The building is twice the size of the old building, and consumes one-third the energy.”

Natural daylight harvesting allows the district’s Turkey Foot Middle School to use minimal electrically powered lighting. The school’s roof is covered in solar panels. Water fountains do not have compressors, which means money is not spent chilling water. The walls are made of insulated, leak-free concrete, keeping heat and air conditioning in the building.

When Ginny Rammel, superintendent of Milton-Union School District in Miami, Ohio, was looking to construct a new preK through 12 building, architects at Ruetschle Architects and Waibel Energy Systems helped her design an efficient building for $32 million, or $148 per square foot. Due to the recession of 2008, the district was able to get high-quality materials at reduced rates, says Mike Huff, project architect.

“We installed an air cooled chiller, which involves ice being produced at night and then using that ice to cool the building during the day,” says Huff.

The air cooled chiller provides a means to dehumidify the mixture of ventilation air and return air before it is supplied to the building. This simplifies the HVAC system by using only air to reject heat from the condensers, according to Huff.

“A rainwater harvesting drum was constructed to collect water that is then reused in plumbing,” says Joe Zimmerman, the controls and integration leader at Waibel Energy Systems. The drum will save the district about $8,000 to $12,000 a year in water costs.

Design projects around programs

The team at Plymouth Public Schools in Massachusetts hit a speed bump when they discovered the solar panels they wanted to install were too heavy for the district’s 50 year old buildings, says Gary Costin, school business administrator.

In 2009, the district’s electric company, NStar Electric, began building a field that would power buildings with solar power in a neighboring town. The power from this grid is fed into the regional electric grid from where the district draws its power. That farm, completed in October, will now generate 50 percent of Plymouth’s electricity.

“In exchange for NStar entirely funding the development of the solar field, we simply agreed to purchase power from NStar for the next 20 years at a fixed, discounted rate,” says Plymouth Public Schools Superintendent Gary Maestas.

The district pays eight cents per kilowatt hour to the solar developer, Borrego Solar, and then receives a 14.2 cent metering credit from NStar, says Chris Campbell, the district’s assistant superintendent. The district nets a rebate of 6.2 cents. Expected electricity savings for 2013-14 is $400,000.

This agreement allows district leaders to have control over the escalating costs of energy, says Campbell. Even if delivery costs go up, the district will still save, as NStar promises the utility discount will also go up, Campbell says. “There are few opportunities in a district to stabilize an expense for 20 years.”

When work on a second farm is complete, 70 percent of the district’s electricity should be solar-generated, says Maestas. This field will also power over 700 homes in the surrounding areas.

Force behavior change

Companies like Cenergistic offer energy conservation programs that help district leaders decrease utility costs through behavior alteration, Cenergistic CEO Randy Hoff says.

“Altering behavior is all about eliminating waste,” says Hoff. “District leaders need to understand their buildings’ occupancy patterns and heat, light, and cool accordingly. Buildings are typically overcooled in warm months and overheated in cold months.”

Cenergistic’s consultants work with custodians to determine the right temperature for every hour of the day, resulting in an average savings of 26 percent annually in utility costs.

Behavior change also involves wise scheduling decisions. “For summer months, instead of occupying three different buildings at 25 percent, have everyone come together in one building to save energy,” Hoff says.

Edgar Hatrick, superintendent of Loudon County Public Schools in Virginia was intrigued by the promise that its fees would only be due if his district saved money on energy. “These behavior changes are common sense, but sometimes it’s hard to do the common sense thing without a partner like Cenergistic guiding you,” he says.

Key behavior changes in Loudon schools included no longer cooling unoccupied areas in the district’s 84 schools. “Energy specialists can control temperature in specific areas of the schools remotely,” says Hatrick.

What was most important to Hatrick was maintaining comfort for the people in the buildings. Temperatures are set at reasonable levels, 71 for heating, and 73 for cooling to ensure an enjoyable working and learning environment, he says.

Restructure transportation plans

Optimizing bus routes and combining fields trips are just some of the ways energy leaders at Poudre School District in Fort Collins, Colo. are saving on transportation costs. “We are taking a holistic look at our transportation planning,” says Pete Hall, the district’s director of facilities. “We are thinking about not only how kids get to school, but other ways transportation is used.”

The district is analyzing the most efficient routes to area sporting events and field trips, which will reduce gasoline and bus maintenance costs, says Stu Reeve, energy manager. “New GPS technology can tell us how long buses are idling during stops,” Reeve says. “We can address unnecessarily long idles with our drivers to cut fuel costs.”

John Holcombe, Poudre’s safety and energy manager, is working with schools to promote students biking to school in dry weather. “We are working with the town to make sure there are safe paths to school along roads and will be implementing a rewards program in our elementary school for students who bike to school,” he says.

The district is looking into buying auxiliary heaters that can warm up bus engines before the vehicles are started to reduce fuel use.

Create strategic partnerships

Energy management companies can lend expertise to district plans. For example, Johnson Controls is an energy advising company that works with districts from the design phase of new buildings to years after completion to ensure savings goals are reached, says Gwenn McDaniel, Johnson’s director of education systems.

By engaging with an energy management company, some districts can join an aggregate for utilities. “Since then your district would be part of a larger customer, you would get more attention and better pricing from your utility company,” McDaniel says.

Then there are full-coverage guaranteed repair plans, such as those offered by ABM Industries, an energy service company. The plans allow district leaders to budget the same amount each year for HVAC equipment and lighting and electrical controls repair.

“There is a flat yearly fee, and then no matter how many times the covered equipment needs repairing or service, we come fix it at no extra cost,” says Dan Dowell, vice president of bundled energy solutions for ABM Building and Energy Solutions.

One time repairs can be costly, especially as some companies charge extra for repairs that need to be done immediately.

There are also minimum coverage plans at a lower cost available at districts where no major repairs are expected, such as in schools with brand-new HVAC machines, Dowell says. “The best way to keep energy costs low is to properly maintain existing equipment,” Dowell says. “It’s key to keep your assets operating at peak efficiency.”

Take advantage of future savings

Guaranteed savings performance contracts allow district leaders to upgrade their facilities with funds from future savings.

Engineers at energy solutions companies, such as Schneider Electric, figure out what new equipment, such as HVAC machines, need to be installed to improve efficiency. These engineers then calculate how much money a district would save over 10 to 20 years if they made these improvements, says Tammy Fulop, VP of sales, energy solutions for Schneider Electric. “In a guaranteed savings performance contract, district leaders use these future savings funds to pay for the equipment upgrades,” she says.

Eighty percent of district leaders work with an outside financing company to fund these projects. Schneider Electric can offer financing that can be paid off annually. “It is okay to borrow against the future because it is guaranteed the money will come back in the form of utility bill savings,” Fulop says.

If those guaranteed savings are not met, Schneider Electric makes up the difference to the district, Fulop says. DA

Kylie Lacey is special projects editor.