Schools' energy savings steps yielding budget bonuses
Published: Sunday, November 17, 2013 at 7:27 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, November 17, 2013 at 7:27 p.m.
Local schools' efforts to cut energy use this year has really paid off — literally.
During the 2012-13 school year, Alachua County Schools cut energy use by about 3.6 million kilowatt hours, a reduction of 7.3 percent. As a result, the school district has spent $1.6 million less on energy than it had budgeted, said School Board Chairwoman Eileen Roy.
Forty-one local schools and centers were given a total of $50,000 earlier this year as part of the district's energy conservation incentives program.
"People are on board with saving energy," said Roy, who has long been a proponent of energy conservation in schools. "These are people that know what energy costs and they want to instruct children in how to save the planet."
It's an issue that's been increasingly important to the board and the school district in the past five years.
Roy said she originally brought the idea of an energy conservation incentive program to the School Board in 2005, but it took until 2008 to get it started. That year, she said, the district saved $700,000 on energy costs.
Many of the energy-saving techniques have been easy fixes. District employees re-tune air conditioning schedules, ensuring units aren't working to cool buildings when no one is working. Unused water heaters have been shut off and fluorescent bulbs and more efficient fixtures are being used in district facilities.
Saving money on energy is "low-hanging fruit," Roy said.
Funds saved from the energy budget can be used for so many things, she said — hiring mentor coaches for new teachers, increasing teacher salaries, paying for after-school tutoring or providing scholarships for students who can't afford after-school care.
Roy also commended teachers and district staff for instilling a sense of conservation in students.
"I'm so proud of our students and teachers," she said. "I think people are aware of how precious this resource is and want to save the planet."
In 2011, the school district created a new position — energy conservation specialist — and hired former teacher and energy contractor Theresa Spurling-Wood to help lead conservation efforts.
Since then, individual schools have been racking up accolades in addition to helping bring the entire district's energy bill down.
In March, Newberry High School's 10-member Climate Control Corps beat 400 teams to win first place in the Lexus Eco Challenge. Their work educating the community on how to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide, along with information on climate change, solar and wind energy and reforestation earned them a $15,000 prize.
A few months later, High Springs Community School placed third overall in the water-saving category of the Environmental Protection Agency's "Battle of the Buildings" national competition.
It was the only county school that made the top 10 list.
To make that cut, district workers fixed an outdoor pipe that had been leaking for years, retrofitted sinks and toilets and scaled back the school's irrigation system.
The project resulted in a 70 percent reduction in water use, equating to an annual savings of about $13,000.
J.J. Finley and Shell elementary schools were recognized in the same competition for cutting back energy consumption by 20 percent.
And the national attention keeps coming.
The Environmental Protection Agency named Alachua County a 2013 Top Performer, as well as a 2013 Energy Star Leader for energy reduction.
St. Johns County was the only other school district in the state to receive the Leader designation.
The school district maintains a tight focus on sustainability, Roy and Spurling-Wood said.
A few weeks ago, Alachua County Schools benefited from the 2013 United Way Day of Action, when 100 United Way volunteers weatherized eight schools: Terwilliger, Duval and Williams elementary schools, Howard Bishop Middle, Gainesville High, High Springs Community School and Sidney Lanier Center.
"It was pretty neat to be a part of something so big," Spurling-Wood said.
Volunteers used about 60 tubes of caulk at each school, which Spurling-Wood said was a similar concept to keeping air in a balloon.
Before the weatherization effort, she said, the schools were more like colanders, letting warm outside air in and stressing the air conditioners.
Future conservation efforts include launching a single-stream recycling program and solar energy curriculum at every district school. Solar panels are already installed and producing energy at some schools, but the district hopes to add more.
These projects require serious commitment, Spurling-Wood said, but the work will continue to pay off.
"It is a big piece of a big puzzle that's all coming together," she said.