Why do area schools trail other districts in energy savings?
Published: Saturday, January 15, 2011 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 14, 2011 at 11:21 p.m.
After realizing Alachua County Public Schools could do more to cut energy costs, Superintendent Dan Boyd recommended hiring an energy conservation specialist to help rein in electricity bills and show educators how they could be more green.
Top Energy Users
School, 2009/10 Consumption (kWh), Estimated Annual Cost at $0.12/kWh
Gainesville High School, 3,250,248, $390,030
Buchholz, 3,210,444, $385,253
Eastside, 2,960,638, $355,277
Kanapaha Middle, 2,174,457, $260,935
Santa Fe, 1,970,442, $236,453
Oak View, 1,873,342, $224,801
High Springs, 1,771,002, $212,520
Fort Clarke, 1,722,447, $206,694
Bishop, 1,620,769, $194,492
Hawthorne, 1,617,405, $194,089
That was in 2006. The position remains empty.
Since then, the school district has made some strides in energy efficiency, but a School Board member says the district still is dragging its feet, pointing to other districts that are saving millions under comprehensive energy management plans.
Marion County schools have saved more than $10 million since hiring energy specialists in 2006, while Polk County has saved more than $70 million since contracting with an independent firm in 1992.
Alachua County schools have an energy conservation program that includes a voluntary incentive program, but administrators and teachers say it has lost steam after a successful inaugural year that netted $610,000 in savings.
“To me it seems so obvious what we need to do,” School Board member Eileen Roy said.
The district is moving in the right direction, said Ed Gable, the district's facilities director, with the recommendation to hire an energy conservation specialist and use solar energy to reap rewards — both of which are scheduled to be discussed at Tuesday's School Board meeting.
After Boyd's initial recommendation, Roy said the idea languished for a year before a consulting group was hired in 2007.
A presentation on energy conservation in March 2007 forecast potential savings over five years at $196,500.
“It doesn't make any sense that we set our sights so low,” Roy said.
The presentation included the incentive program, which rewarded schools on a sliding scale for reducing their energy consumption. Monetary awards of as much as $4,000 would be given to schools each October, which happens to be National Energy Month.
Gable said the first year was a success, saving the district 9 percent in energy costs, or roughly $610,000.
J.J. Finley Elementary School teacher Emily Monda Poe said Gainesville Regional Utilities contacted her about giving a presentation about the Watt Watchers program. The program teaches students to be mindful of energy usage with Watt Watchers roaming the halls and leaving doorhangers to remind teachers and students to turn lights off. She then brought the idea to her principal for the rest of the school.
But eventually the light flickered, she said.
“All of our lights turn off automatically,” she said. “It ended up being a moot point.”
J.J. Finley Elementary School cut its energy consumption by 22 percent in 2008, credited mostly to the installation of new windows to cut down on drafts.
The school's efforts have turned from light bills to landfills, Principal Kathy Valdes said. “Now our green committee is focused on recycling,” she said. “I have to say the Watt Watchers thing went by the wayside.”
Gable said there wasn't quite the same focus in the second year of the incentive program.
“We have not had the staff to focus on that,” he said. “Our first priority is keeping them (heating and cooling systems) running.”
The district used 3 percent more energy compared with the inaugural year, but the cold winter received most of the blame.
Gable said he hopes that in the future, the district can at least monitor all of the schools from the department. Usually in the morning, staff check temperatures and try to solve any problems, he said.
“We can monitor them more than we can actually control them,” he said. “In some cases, we just have to trust them.”
It takes constant positive reinforcement to make substantial change, Marion County leaders learned after employing two energy management specialists.
James Newkirk, one of two energy management specialists for the Marion County School District, said his job is to make that happen.
“People are resistant to change -- that's true all over,” he said. “I think as we began to have success early on, the momentum started to build, and we've developed an energy-conscious culture here in Marion County.”
Small reminders, such as green handwritten notes thanking district teachers and helpful hints for the winter break, help keep that momentum going, Newkirk said.
It's paying off. Marion County schools have saved more than $10 million in anticipated energy costs since inception of the program in 2006.
Consolidating summer school sites and reducing summer workweeks to four days have helped, along with buying energy-efficient equipment, Newkirk said. The district also has a computer program that manages systems and computers remotely -- shutting off any computer left on after hours.
“We do audit our facilities, and our principals get the information that we find,” he said.
The audits, done at least quarterly, include usage trends and highlight where the schools can conserve.
Other schools across the state are following suit. St. Johns County schools have saved more than 40 percent in energy consumption, or about $9 million, since 2008. The district has a number of Energy Star-labeled schools and contracts with the Texas-based consultation company Energy Education.
Jan Noel-Smith, company spokeswoman, said another Florida district, Polk County, has saved more than $70 million in energy costs since starting with its program more than a decade ago.
For a fee, specialists including engineers, systems experts and educators help develop, implement and monitor a comprehensive program, Noel-Smith said.
When the contract is over, the company trains an employee to be the energy education specialist.
“We train the district to train their people to be aware of energy use,” she said.
The number of school districts seeking help began to climb in 2000, Noel-Smith said.
“Utilities is the second-largest line item behind personnel,” she said. “If you can make a significant cut in your energy costs, you have more money in the budget.”
The Florida Solar Energy Center at the University of Central Florida uses its Utility Report Card to track the usage rates in several school districts, said Susan Schleith, an educator with FSEC.
“The report card itself is not going to make anybody save energy,” she said. “The idea is to make people more aware of their energy use and use it as a mechanism to determine how they're saving.”
Schleith likens it to a diet. “You know where you're starting, and you know what your goal is,” she said.
For some counties, the difference in savings comes down to having a devoted energy manager, Schleith said.
“I think that Brevard County was really successful, because they actually had people committed to saving energy,” she said. “They also brought in educators to help work with the teachers. That really made a big difference.”
Determining how much schools have saved in energy consumption gets done when the facilities department can get to it, Gable said.
While Alachua County's incentive program might have short-circuited, other greening efforts across the district have been successful.
“We're using every chance we can to use the most efficient heaters we can,” Gable said.
The district also installed waterless urinals, replaced its fluorescent lights with more energy-efficient bulbs and received more than $200,000 in rebates from GRU.
Two LEED-certified projects were completed in 2009 -- the Professional Academies at Loften classroom building and the Santa Fe High School science classroom building.
LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, certification is given out by the U.S. Green Buildings Council, a nonprofit organization that recognizes buildings that meet strict criteria. Both buildings are silver-certified projects.
Gable said the new elementary school planned for the intersection of Northwest 39th Avenue and Northwest 112th Street also will be a certified green building.
Gable said the district replaced the heating and cooling system at Buchholz High School, with Eastside soon to follow. Each project will cost $1 million.
“Some of the parts there were from the same system in 1970,” he said.
Also up for discussion is the installation of solar panels at 10 schools through GRU's solar feed-in tariff program.
Solar Impact of Gainesville could install the solar panels, and investors might repair the school roofs in exchange for the right to sell the generated energy to GRU. Investors also will pay the district a lease for the roof space for 20 years and $100,000 for each megawatt of energy produced.
GRU will open applications on Tuesday.
Challenges still abound. The average age of county school buildings hovers around 30 years.
“As fast as the funds will allow, we'll move down the list,” he said. “That money is hard to come by these days.”
Roy said she still questions why its taken so long.
“Inertia, I guess,” she said.
It's a big task, Gable said.
“It's not going as fast as we'd like it to go either,” he said.
School Board member April Griffin said the district's new conservation efforts are positive.
“I think everybody is conscious of the energy savings and what it could mean in the long run,” she said. “It's being good stewards of the environment and of the taxpayers' money.”
Contact Jackie Alexander at firstname.lastname@example.org or 338-3166.