By Madelynn Coldiron
The walk-in freezer at Crittenden County Elementary was emptied last summer and its contents taken to another school for storage – but not because it was broken. The freezer was shut off to save on utility costs, said local energy manager Darrel Pfingston.
The school also significantly reduced air conditioning costs during that time when custodians moved to a four-day, 10-hour-per-day work week.
“These things cost you zero money to implement,” said Pfingston, who serves four districts in western Kentucky.
PHOTO: Darrel Pfingston, far left, an energy manager in four western Kentucky school districts, attends an Energy Awareness Day last year at Henderson Community College.
The elementary school’s experience is just one example of the benefits –both anticipated and unanticipated, monetary and behavioral – that 130-plus school districts across the state have seen since the School Energy Managers Project launched in July 2010.
The project hired 35 energy managers whose work thus far has produced a total of $4.5 million in ongoing annual savings and $1.1 million in one-time rebates or refunds, said Ron Willhite, project manager. The program is administered by KSBA in partnership with the state Department for Energy Development and Independence.
The project has performed “even better than we had anticipated as far as the dollar savings to local districts,” said Greg Guess, director of the department’s Division of Efficiency and Conservation.
The program may be unique in the nation, he and Willhite said. “I don’t know of another state that has devoted so big a portion of their stimulus act funding to (energy) education,” Guess said.
The federal funding came to the governor’s office, which earmarked $5.1 million for the project. The first year of the federal grant paid for 75 percent of the cost of the energy managers, while the second year cut that back to 50 percent.
Gov. Steve Beshear said the impact on both students and schools has been “exciting.”
“This partnership between KSBA, local school districts, and the state provides Kentucky an opportunity to educate our youth in facilities that are environmentally friendly and helps school districts save precious dollars that can be redirected toward education,” Beshear said.
Willhite pointed to another unexpected benefit: a number of what he called “spin-offs” through KSBA partnerships with other organizations. These include endorsements of a natural gas aggregation program to reduce those costs to districts, a financing program for small energy efficiency projects in districts and a formal partnership between KSBA and the Kentucky School Plant Management Association.
The project as it now exists will be winding down as the federal economic stimulus funding ends in April. The form it will take in the future is a question mark, particularly in smaller districts.
LaRue County Schools Superintendent Sam Sanders said though the program “without question” has been valuable, he doesn’t expect to be able to support the energy manager who serves his district once the federal money is gone.
Because of that, he said, from the outset, “we tried to put some things in place that would change habits long term and we’ve done that.”
Some of the changes districts have made will be lasting, said local energy manager Terry Anderson, who is based in Fleming County and serves six districts.
“I believe that I’ve shown them where the savings are. I think they’re aware of it now, where in the past a lot of the principals at the different schools had no idea what the utility bills ran,” Anderson said.
The project also has “by and large created recognition by leadership – boards, superintendents, facility directors – of the value of having boots on the ground that have been trained in ways to identify savings and making better choices on how to use energy,” Willhite said. “That’s been long term, hopefully.”
Anderson said the overall process of identifying energy efficiencies takes longer than the two years allotted to the project.
“There’s a lot of money that’s been saved and a lot of money still to be saved,” he said.
Guess said he hopes districts will retain all the energy managers, but acknowledged some will be lost, to the detriment of the work that’s been done thus far.
“There’s no doubt about it that if the functions of an energy manager aren’t funded, then the ability to capture the potential savings drops off significantly,” he said.
However permanent or impermanent the changes, there have been lessons learned through the project:
• Districts can work together in this arena – and maybe others. Most districts that participated joined with others to pay for the services of an energy manager who divided his or her time among them. This “business model,” Willhite said, shows, “There are probably some other opportunities to partner down the road in other operational activities.”
• Schools can save a lot with a little. Guess pointed to Rosa Parks Elementary in Fayette County, which reaped a 47 percent savings with no capital investment by using just operational and maintenance efficiency measures.
• School district and building leaders must be vigilant about their utility bills. Rate structure has been one area that has consistently reaped the most savings. Energy managers discovered utility companies that were billing some districts and schools at the wrong – and higher – rates; that were improperly adding tax to those bills; and in a few cases, even billing for power use on buildings that no longer existed.
• Change begins at the top, when school and district leadership encourage energy efficiency. “It’s a top-down-driven program and if you don’t have buy-in at the top the little pieces of efficiency improvement up and down the line don’t happen,” Pfingston said.