Strategies in Sustainability

Public schools across the nation are feeling the pinch when it comes to running their facilities. Rising energy prices are driving higher operating costs, and overstretched district budgets have become even more strained. School administrators are being forced to dedicate larger portions of budgets to energy costs and, as a trade off, they often have to delay basic building maintenance and upkeep. This causes equipment to become less efficient, which leads to even higher utility and operating expenses.

But the pain is felt in more places than the pocketbook. Nearly 90 percent of school leaders see a direct link between quality of school facilities and student performance, according to the 2010 “School Energy and Environment Survey” from Honeywell and Education Week Research, which polled 800 school administrators and school board members. The same report also found that two-thirds of school districts have cut spending on building maintenance and upgrades as a direct result of rising energy bills.

Further, the survey showed energy costs have crippled the flexibility for administrators to maintain and invest in facilities. A quarter of respondents have seen their district’s energy costs rise at least 25 percent in the past three years, compared to 17 percent of those polled in 2009. And, as a consequence of rising utility bills, almost 75 percent of the districts have cut spending in key areas such as maintenance, capital investment and staffing.

Still, school administrators are constantly balancing the need to provide students with high-quality learning facilities while simultaneously maintaining manageable operating costs. But when it comes to upgrading and improving buildings, districts often lack the expertise and resources to determine the best course of action — a course with a solid return on investment.

Although there is no one-size-fits-all solution, there are a variety of options for modernizing aging buildings and driving down energy costs. Some schools are finding success with approaches that employ traditional technology retrofits, while others are implementing more innovative measures like establishing education and awareness programs that promote best energy practices among students and staff, and installing renewable energy technologies.

The breadth of energy conservation options that districts have to consider is vast. However, there are examples where schools are achieving energy and facility management goals without a standard blueprint or prior precedent, all while staying within budget.

Guaranteed Awareness
In 2007, Gadsden County School District in Quincy, Fla., began an ambitious infrastructure renewal program that spanned 15 schools and an administration office. Through a performance contract — a financing agreement that allows school districts to fund infrastructure improvements through guaranteed utility and operational savings — Gadsden made numerous facility upgrades, such as installing new lighting equipment, and improving heating ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) hardware and controls.

While retrofits alone helped reduce utility bills, the district also sought to employ education as an energy saving tool and gave lessons to administrators, faculty and students about the importance of energy and environmental conservation. For example, initial assessments found that 40 percent of the district’s electricity use went to lighting in buildings. Gadsden’s approach aimed to educate energy consumers in the district in order to mitigate gratuitous energy use.

To address energy use issues, the district hosted educational workshops so students and staff could learn about ways they could be more energy conscious, including turning off lights in empty rooms and shutting down computers at the end of the day. The district also conducted a “Step into Sustainability” pledge event designed to help students understand what their contribution to sustainability can mean to the future of their school and community.

As a result of the workshops, Gadsden saw incremental savings in its energy expenditures beyond what could be achieved through retrofits alone. By the end of 2009, the district had already realized savings of more than $400,000 in electrical, gas and propane costs compared to the previous year, and reduced its total electricity consumption by 20 percent. The work is also expected to reduce the district’s carbon footprint, cutting greenhouse gas emissions by more than 2,000 tons annually over the next 10 years. This is equivalent to removing more than 400 passenger vehicles from the road according to figures from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

No Wires Attached

Opportunities to tap into government support are also helping alleviate financial constraints that keep schools from making improvements to facilities and infrastructure. Like Gadsden, the Taylor School District in Taylor, Mich., engaged in a performance contract and plans to use guaranteed savings to pay for critical upgrades, which are expected to cut annual energy and operating costs by $550,000. This structure allowed the district to address deferred maintenance and boost the comfort and safety of students and staff without impacting its budget.

The district also used a Qualified School Construction Bond, part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which provided a low-interest, 15-year loan for the program. With this federal backing, the district was able to invest most of the savings in building and technology upgrades, maximizing the program’s scope and impact.

To specifically address conservation, the program employed measures in 21 of the district’s buildings, including the replacement of outdated boilers and controls, an update to energy management systems to help facility personnel track energy use and identify waste, and the installation of new plumbing fixtures to decrease water use.

The district did not focus solely on energy upgrades. As part of the program, the administrators will deploy a wireless mesh network that provides broadband Internet access across all of its schools — an upgrade that will expand the district’s connectivity and allow teachers to use interactive whiteboards and other advanced technologies in the classroom.

With the school focused on providing the latest technologies to boost its capabilities, the wireless network will allow the district to integrate online learning tools and techniques to deliver educational materials more efficiently and effectively to students.

The upgrades are expected to cut electricity consumption by 2.67 million kilowatt-hours per year — enough energy to power almost 250 homes. They will also decrease annual carbon dioxide emissions by an estimated 3,300 metric tons. This is equivalent to removing more than 630 cars from the road, according to the EPA.

Sun-Drenched Savings

Several school districts in California are traveling a different path to lower utility bills and increased sustainability. Dixon Unified School District and Riverdale Joint Unified School District, for example, undertook solar projects expected to drive more than $1 million in energy savings for each district through 2028. 

Honeywell installed solar photovoltaic (PV) systems at several district facilities and administrators agreed to purchase the electricity the panels produce, under separate contracts with the company. The projects required no upfront investment and it allowed the districts to buy renewable energy at a price below their current utility rates.

In Dixon, Calif., engineers installed a ground-mounted photovoltaic solar array at the district’s new high school. The array uses single-axis tracking technology to automatically orient the panels to the sun’s position in the sky, improving the electrical output of the system. Since going online in December of 2008, the system has generated more than 1.4 million kilowatt-hours of electricity annually — enough energy to power more than 130 homes per year and supply 80 percent of the electricity for the school.

Similar technology was installed at Riverdale High School and Fipps Primary School in Riverdale, Calif. Since January of 2009, these arrays have generated nearly 1.2 million kilowatt-hours of electricity annually, covering more than 60 percent of the district’s total electricity load.

As illustrated by examples like Gadsden, Taylor, Dixon and Riverdale, facility upgrades and balanced budgets do not have to be an either-or scenario. Examples across the nation show that K-12 districts can carve their own route to energy savings and infrastructure improvement.

Whether through traditional retrofits, education and awareness, or investing in renewable energy, administrators have several options for meeting conservation goals without straining operating budgets. By matching their distinct needs with the right technology, districts can put themselves in position for success in sustainability.

Ron Blagus is the energy market director for Honeywell Building Solutions. He is located in Toledo, Ohio, and can be reached at [email protected]