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Schools Learn Energy Efficiency

The new math formula in Kentucky schools these days is E2, for Energy Efficiency. Scott Lewis, superintendent of Hancock County Public Schools in western Kentucky, says, “Saving energy can start with simple things like turning off computer monitors at night. We’ve changed to high-efficiency hand dryers in the restrooms instead of using paper towels. A class over at the high school is involved in a recycling project. We have motion sensors in some areas to turn lights off, and we’ve added programmable thermostats in our buildings.”

Hancock County is one of the state’s smaller public school systems, serving about 1,600 students. Yet it is setting an example of what can be accomplished with a little determination. The district includes two elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school. Lewis says, “Our school board is very supportive of energy savings. They stay abreast of current issues and technology. We believe in reducing energy use–and that doing it will save money. You can start small, with one building at a time.”

Statewide, Kentucky’s 174 K-12 public school districts operate 1,243 buildings. Each school spends a big chunk of its annual budget on many different kinds of energy, including natural gas, fuels for school buses, and electricity. Together, all these school districts spent $187 million on all forms of energy during the 2007 fiscal year.

Encouraging energy efficiency
Several developments are pushing energy efficiency to the top of school officials’ to-do lists.

Community demands for wiser energy use play a part. Many civic-minded individuals want their local schools to add more lessons about energy production and use, as well as sustainable living. And they think local schools could become showcases for how to put energy-efficiency ideas into practice in real-life situations.

Changing attitudes about energy use are also affecting official statewide policies. A key part of Governor Beshear’s energy plan, Intelligent Choices for Kentucky’s Energy Future, focuses on energy efficiency. The first item in the report’s seven-point strategy is to “improve the energy efficiency of Kentucky’s homes, buildings, industries, and transportation fleet.” The report also says “in the near term, energy efficiency and conservation represent the fastest, cleanest, most cost-effective, and most secure methods we have to reduce our growing demand for energy and to help us address issues surrounding global climate change.”

Money is the other big issue. Since the year 2000, total energy expenses for Kentucky’s public schools have more than doubled.

Some of that increase is due to more students and more activities at schools. But a lot of the increase is due to higher energy prices. The statewide average has climbed from $159 per year to $319 in energy expenses per student. Schools looking at extremely tight budgets for the coming years must balance energy expenses against other vital items such as new textbooks, computers, and teachers’ salaries.

Finally, energy-efficiency efforts now have the force of law, as spelled out in House Bill 2, enacted in 2008. A section of this new law requires all boards of education within the state to enroll in the Kentucky Energy Efficiency Program for Schools (KEEPS) and report on their progress.

Sharing energy info
Earlier this spring, KEEPS hosted two energy management workshops, one in Cave City and another in Georgetown. Sixty school districts sent 260 representatives. Attendees included school principals, facilities managers, teachers, and local school board members.

Beth Bell, KEEPS coordinator, says, “We really see the value of a multidisciplinary approach to energy efficiency within a school district. We encourage districts to develop a mission statement to set the tone for energy efficiency first. We also recommend establishing an energy team, and appointing someone as the energy manager or energy coordinator who will keep things moving within the district.”

KEEPS is funded by grants from the state’s Department of Energy Development and Independence, and administered by the Kentucky Pollution Prevention Council (KPPC) headquartered at the J.B. Speed School of Engineering at the University of Louisville.

Warren County Public Schools is one of Kentucky’s larger school districts, with 20 school buildings in and around Bowling Green. Their energy-efficiency efforts began more than two decades ago with the installation of computerized controls for their heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems. Then five years ago, they stepped up their commitment by hiring Jay Wilson as a full-time energy manager.

Charles Rector, director of facilities, says, “Part of Mr. Wilson’s job is to go around to each school building to make sure that automated systems are indeed shutting off lights at night, adjusting HVAC settings, and so forth. But during the days he also teaches, helping to educate our staff about how to operate buildings in the most energy-efficient ways. And he talks with students about day-to-day behavior, such as whether they’re leaving doors open that shouldn’t be.”

Warren County and Hancock County public schools both belong to a larger regional group, the Green River Educational Co-op. Members of 33 school districts gather once a month for professional development programs and roundtable discussions. Yet making changes can be difficult.

Finding the money
Homeowners and business people can easily understand the problem facing school districts. It costs money to make energy-efficiency improvements. The idea of spending money now to save money later can stop projects from moving beyond the “nice idea” stage. Today, innovative programs are helping speed things along to put real improvements into place quickly.

Energy service companies, independent businesses known as ESCOs, offer a new approach. ESCO experts work with school districts to gather information about current energy use to develop long-range energy management programs. These teams of experts, who are certified in their specialties, analyze every kind of energy activity and expense, then calculate the exact reductions in energy use that various new choices can be expected to produce over time. Those choices may include changes in day-to-day operating practices, modifying existing equipment and buildings, and the purchase and installation of new equipment.

The next step in this process involves an energy savings performance contract (ESPC). The energy service company guarantees that by following a set of new recommendations, the district will save money due to lower energy usage over the coming years—enough money, in fact, to pay for the up-front costs. Instead of having to find separate financing for a large capital improvement project, the costs of that project are spread out over time and paid for using the money that didn’t need to be spent on energy supplies.

Stephen Roosa, an engineer with the Louisville office of Energy Systems Group, says, “In Kentucky, we have far more old school buildings than new ones. Complete replacement of buildings is costly, so renovations of existing buildings is a very important application for ESPC projects.” Energy Systems Group developed an energy savings plan that’s allowed the Hancock County School system to replace old HVAC equipment with an energy- and money-saving new geothermal system. The company has completed projects in Crittenden, Hopkins, Marshall, and McCracken counties, as well as for both the Mayfield and Williamstown Independent Schools.

Another company, Energy Education (based in Dallas, Texas), recently reported the results of its energy savings performance contracts with six Kentucky school districts, including Warren County. Energy Education’s Jan Noel-Smith says, “Over the life of the various multiyear programs we have in place throughout the state, these school districts have reported total savings of just under $14 million through the winter of 2009.”

Extreme efficiency bonus
Improving the way existing school buildings use energy by adding insulation, replacing old windows, and changing HVAC equipment isn’t the only option. Some school districts with increasing student enrollment must build entirely new school buildings to serve growing communities. These new schools use much less energy.

Warren County’s Rector says, “We’ve scratch built two new elementary schools recently, with two others under construction. Alvaton, opened in 2006, is the first school in Kentucky with walls made of a special building material known as insulated concrete form.” With an R-50 value, this new material is at the top of the charts for preventing heat gain or loss, making it an excellent energy saving choice.

Rector says, “The average school nationwide uses the equivalent of about 75 British thermal units (Btu) of energy per square foot. At Plano Elementary, opened in 2007, we have it down to about 29 Btu. At the new Richardsville School set to open in 2010, we have it engineered so it will be between 17 and 18 Btu per square foot.”

Solar panels will be installed on the roof of the school under construction. The district intends to sell all the electricity generated from this renewable energy source to TVA, which supplies the electricity for the local utility Warren RECC. That could completely offset the amount of energy the school buys from Warren RECC’s distribution lines, making the new school a “net zero” building.


The Kentucky Energy Efficiency Program for Schools (KEEPS) recommends using a systems approach to improving energy efficiency based on guidelines from Energy Star. You can use these seven steps at your business, church, or at home.

1. Make a commitment to improve energy efficiency.

2. Assess current energy use and opportunities for change.

3. Set realistic priorities for your unique situation.

4. Develop an energy action plan with goals.

5. Put the plan into action.

6. Evaluate progress at regular intervals.

7. Report on and recognize achievements as energy savings occur.

Visit the KEEPS Web site at for a library of additional online energy-efficiency resources and practical ideas.

Next month:

What’s behind the buzz about the smart electric grid

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