Coalition Campaigns For Investment in Energy-Efficient Schools

By Peter Schmidt — March 18, 1992 13 min read
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Although nationwide figures for schools are not yet available, institutional pools and spas as a whole appear to consume more than 4 percent of the energy used by the nation each year.

The campaign’s message appears to run against the current, its leaders acknowledge, because many school districts are responding to recession-driven budget pressures by postponing the very types of capital-improvement projects the coalition is calling for.

“Our studies show that the biggest reason people say they are not doing energy work is a lack of funds,’' said Shirley J. Hansen, an energy consultant who has had a central role in mounting the campaign.

The effort is aiming to drive home the point that, by failing to invest in energy efficiency, schools watch their money go out the window or up the smokestack--and thus suffer more financially in the long run.

Moreover, the campaign’s leaders say, new methods of paying for energy-saving measures, as well as pending changes in federal policy, may make it much easier for schools to finance needed building improvements.

The ultimate payoff, they stress, lies in freeing up money for such purposes as teacher salaries and classroom supplies.

“The energy savings,’' Ms. Hansen said, “become a vehicle to do some of the other things that the district wants to do.’'

The energy-efficiency campaign grows out of a report by the American Association of School Administrators, entitled “Schoolhouse in the Red,’' on the deteriorating condition of the nation’s educational facilities. The organization plans to distribute copies of the study this month to school officials around the country.

The report, summaries of which were released in November, concluded that public schools could trim 25 percent of their $7.4-billion total annual energy budget through more energy-efficient operations, prompter maintenance, and a variety of improvements in buildings and equipment. (See Education Week, Nov. 27, 1991.)

The report “was an eye opener,’' said Frank M. Stewart, who deals with school energy issues as the deputy assistant secretary for technical and financial assistance in the U.S. Department of Energy’s office of conservation.

“It was the kind of thing you know, but you don’t pay attention to until somebody slaps you in the face with it,’' Mr. Stewart said.

Costs and Air Quality

The documentation compiled by the A.A.S.A. study comes as several developments have put school officials under renewed pressure to make their buildings more energy-efficient.

The squeeze on school funding caused by the recession, while prompting many districts to defer building improvements, has underlined the necessity of making every budget dollar count.

Coinciding with the recession, the cost of providing energy to the nation’s schools has increased by 18 percent--to about $160 per student--over the past two years, according to Ms. Hansen.

Despite recent declines in the price of natural gas, which provides about 60 percent of the energy consumed by public schools, significant cost savings have not yet been passed along to districts, energy experts say.

Districts also have been under pressure to make their schools more energy-efficient because of the trends toward operating schools year-round and keeping them open longer hours to provide more services to students and the community.

Some districts also are re-examining how they ventilate, heat, and cool their buildings out of fear that they will be sued over poor indoor-air quality.

The A.A.S.A. study maintains that the best defense districts have against lawsuits over air quality is compliance with air-quality standards issued in 1989 by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air Conditioning Engineers.

But an Energy Department study suggests that circulating enough air in schools to comply with these standards could cause the total amount of energy consumed by public school systems to increase by 20 percent.

The best way to avoid such cost-increases, the A.A.S.A. report suggests, may be to make building improvements that address energy efficiency and air circulation at the same time.

Heating systems account for the bulk of school buildings’ energy consumption. In addition to natural gas, schools rely heavily on electricity, propane, and oil for generating heat.

Meeting Lists Recommendations

Following the release of the A.A.S.A. report summaries, more than two dozen officials from federal agencies, education organizations, utility companies, and other businesses met in Washington in January to discuss the findings and develop recommendations for addressing the issues raised.

Among those meeting were representatives from the American Federation of Teachers, the Council of the Great City Schools, the National Education Association, and the National Governors’ Association.

The participants agreed on a list of eight recommendations for improving the nation’s educational infrastructure.

Although some of the recommendations did not deal directly with energy use, all of them addressed the need to keep school buildings well-maintained and appeared likely to contribute to energy efficiency if adopted.

The list of recommendations said that school officials should be widely informed of the links between inefficient energy use, deferred maintenance, and indoor-air problems. It called on educators to view potential savings in energy costs as an incentive to take care of deferred maintenance.

The consensus statement also urged education associations and government agencies to help schools more effectively use both traditional and nontraditional means of financing energy conservation.

‘Performance Contracting’

The recommendations emerging from the conference especially urged that schools be helped to use assistance from utilities and a financing practice known as “performance contracting.’'

Under performance contracting, outside contractors agree to make energy-efficiency improvements to a school building in exchange for a share of the school’s future energy savings.

Some participants in the conference noted that the “Schoolhouse in the Red’’ study was funded by Honeywell Inc., a company that does performance contracting, and they expressed fears that the company’s desire for profits may have had some influence on the content of the report or the recommendations submitted to the conference.

“The process made me feel funny. It was not an ordinary meeting,’' said one participant, who asked not be named. This participant complained that the conference seemed “very packaged,’' and said that participants were videotaped and asked to write down “quotable quotes.’'

But even participants who expressed reservations said most of the concerns raised at the conference seemed valid. And many other conference-goers said they had no reservations about the gathering at all and expressed confidence in the fairness and accuracy on energy issues of Honeywell and of Ms. Hansen, the consultant who has been working on the energy campaign with the A.A.S.A.

“In no way do I feel anything was manipulated. The information is well-founded and the concerns expressed are very appropriate,’' said Richard W. Hobbs, who was invited to attend the January meeting as the vice president of a group within the American Institute of Architects that deals with school design.

Mr. Hobbs said the architects’ organization would be taking steps to better educate its 55,000 members on energy-efficient design and would ask them to subscribe to a new “code of ethics’’ promoting energy efficiency in all buildings, including schools.

Tony J. Wall, the executive director of the Council of Educational Facility Planners International, said his organization followed up on the conference by encouraging its members to look into using performance contracting as a means of financing improved energy management in schools.

‘Backs Against the Wall’

The A.A.S.A. study found that school administrators expect in the next few years to rely significantly less on all of their sources of energy-related financing, suggesting a high level of uncertainty about the prospects for needed improvements.

“A lot of us have our backs against the wall trying to find dollars in our current budgets to do any facility renovation,’' said Doyle Lehman, who participated in the A.A.S.A. conference as the superintendent of the South Adams School District in Indiana.

An estimated 40 percent of districts surveyed by the A.A.S.A. use maintenance budgets as their prime source of funds to pay utility bills that exceed budgeted amounts. Many fall into a vicious circle as their poorly maintained buildings use energy less efficiently and drive up their utility costs even more, A.A.S.A. officials say.

In the past, many states have been able to use federal grants to finance energy-conservation measures undertaken by schools. Often, such grants have been financed with money that oil companies paid to the federal government as restitution for overcharging customers. Those funds appear to be drying up as restitutions are paid off, experts say.

“We have a whole lot less money than we have been using for the last six years or so available’’ for school energy programs, said Frank Bishop, the executive director of the National Association of State Energy Officials.

Help Under New Federal Rule?

But the outlook appears to be brightening for new energy-related financial help for schools.

Mr. Bishop predicted that the recommendations in the A.A.S.A. report “will be easier to realize’’ if the Energy Department implements proposed changes in its Institutional Conservation Program, which financially assists public schools and other entities in paying for energy improvements.

The proposed new regulations, published in the Jan. 6 Federal Register, reflect changes to the conservation program legislated by the State Energy Efficiency Programs Improvement Act of 1990, for which Mr. Bishop’s organization lobbied.

The rule changes, Mr. Bishop and other experts say, could for the first time make the competitive federal grants available to school districts even when they fund energy improvements through liens, performance contracting, and other financing mechanisms associated with debt. In the past, it has been difficult or impossible for districts using debt financing to qualify for the grants.

For the past decade, the Energy Department did not ask the Congress to fund the conservation program. This year, the agency has asked for $30 million, the amount that the Congress in the past has tended to appropriate without any Energy Department request.

Ms. Hansen predicted that school districts--22 percent of which now receive some sort of utility-sponsored assistance in conserving energy--also may be getting more help from utility companies, largely as a result of the Clean Air Act passed in 1990.

The act puts utilities under pressure to encourage conservation, and “the schools make an awfully good public-relations customer for the utilities to help,’' Ms. Hansen said.

Pros and Cons of Contracting

Even without help from the government or utilities, many districts have begun finding ways to pay for energy improvements.

In the last four years, the proportion of school districts seeking to fund such efforts through performance contracting has almost doubled, the A.A.S.A. report notes, with nearly 20 percent of districts surveyed reporting that they had made at least some use of the contracts.

Performance contracts typically give districts 7 to 10 years to use energy savings to pay contractors for energy-conservation improvements in schools. The deals give contractors an incentive to teach school personnel to manage energy more efficiently, Ms. Hansen said, and often result in extra savings that, depending on the contract, can be paid to either the school or the contractor.

Jerry Frazier, the superintendent of the Bradley County School District in southeastern Tennessee, said his 16-campus district entered into a 10-year performance-contracting agreement with Honeywell because an outdated heating and cooling system was causing the district’s utility bills to spiral upward.

It will be difficult for the district to come out on the losing end of the agreement, Mr. Frazier asserted, because the contract calls for Honeywell to pay the difference between the district’s actual energy savings and the savings called for by the contract.

He added, however, that “obviously, if you are paying for a cooling system over 10 years, it is conceivable a certain amount of equipment would be worn out before you are done paying for it.’'

Some school officials maintain that performance contracting is not necessary.

Eugene R. Swanson, the superintendent of the Ellsworth Community School District in northern Wisconsin, said he had considered entering into a performance contract to bring in outside help with energy conservation. But he decided that “we are doing an adequate job with the personnel on hand.’'

Mr. Swanson said his district has been able to conserve energy and keep the cost savings for itself simply by having its maintenance staff do necessary repairs and training maintenance workers to operate buildings more efficiently.

Bill Duncan, the director of property services for the Burlington, Vt., schools, said his district has been able to save energy and money by investing about $250,000 in a computerized control system that monitors buildings and keeps them from wasting energy.

Iowa officials, meanwhile, report that several states have expressed interest in a program, established by the Iowa legislature in 1986, under which the state assists districts in entering into master-lease agreements to pay for energy-efficiency measures.

Catching Up

School officials who decide to make their buildings more energy-efficient may have a lot of catching up to do, experts in the field say. They note that school energy consumption is a lower-profile issue than in the 1970’s, when skyrocketing oil prices brought a rash of conservation measures.

Few studies of school energy use have been released in the last decade. But “Schoolhouse in the Red’’ found that, since 1985, 25 percent of districts have not increased their efforts to conserve energy, and 4 percent have actually decreased such activities.

When administrators do spend money on making schools more energy-efficient, they often fail to spend the money wisely, the A.A.S.A. report concludes.

Most of those surveyed by the A.A.S.A., for example, viewed measures to keep buildings insulated and air-tight as highly cost-effective--which they are not, experts say, because of the high expenses involved.

At the same time, the report suggests, many administrators fail to realize the high pay-back offered by improvements in ventilation, which can help schools much more effectively distribute heated air.

The amount of energy that schools may unknowingly waste on certain facilities is suggested in an ongoing Energy Department study on what the nation spends heating and maintaining swimming pools and spas.

The preliminary results of a department study of the Denver metropolitan area show that the average school swimming pool there uses $10,200 in energy each year. According to the Energy Department, 40 percent to 80 percent of these costs could be saved by installing pool covers, solar panels, and humidity-control systems.

Although nationwide figures for schools are not yet available, institutional pools and spas as a whole appear to consume more than 4 percent of the energy used by the nation each year.

The purchase of pool covers, which keep heated water from escaping as vapor, can pay for itself in energy savings in less than a month if the covers are used nightly, according to the Energy Department.

“Energy efficiency is really an investment. It’s not an expense,’' Ms. Hansen, the energy consultant, said. “To not spend it is to give that money away.’'

A version of this article appeared in the March 18, 1992 edition of Education Week as Coalition Campaigns For Investment in Energy-Efficient Schools

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