School Climate & Safety

As Winter Settles in, Schools Explore Ways to Cut Energy Bills

By Joetta L. Sack — December 13, 2005 4 min read
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Schools in the Northern and Mountain states may be asking students to bundle up this winter.

Lowering the thermostat is one way that districts are bracing for predicted higher heating costs. Some districts are also looking at alternative fuel sources and energy-efficient building materials for longer-term savings.

According to the federal Energy Information Administration, natural-gas prices are projected to rise an average of 38 percent nationally this winter, compared with last winter. The average price of propane is projected to go up 14 percent this winter, while heating-oil prices are expected to jump 24 percent.

Districts saw a rise in gasoline costs after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita disrupted oil production this fall. And while those prices have come down, they are still projected to average $2.43 per gallon at the pump in 2006, up from $2.29 in 2005, according to the EIA.

Anne W. Miller, the executive director of the Reston, Va.-based Association of School Business Officials International, said that many of her members are making tentative plans to lower thermostats during school hours and to limit access to schools when classes are not in session.

“It is a growing concern, and to some extent, they’re going to be making their best guess as to what impact” the rising energy costs will have, she said.

Some districts have banded together to buy electricity in bulk; others have banned small appliances such as coffeemakers in teachers’ classrooms.

Chilly Projections

The New York State Association of School Business officials recently surveyed its members in 700 districts on how they were handling the higher heating costs. Out of the 175 districts that responded, the average estimated gap between budgeted and projected heating costs was $136,000 per district, said Steven G. Van Hoesen, the director of government relations for the Albany, N.Y.-based group.

Cost Trends

Schools can expect to spend more this winter for heating fuels than they did last winter, ccording to federal projections.

*click to enlarge

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCE: Energy Information Administration

Districts in New York are trying various tactics to compensate for the expected shortfalls: creating or enforcing energy-conservation policies, looking to reserve funds, or cutting school programs. The districts may also ask state lawmakers for relief aid when they convene in January. Over the long term, Mr. Van Hoesen said, some districts are looking at alternative sources of heating and more energy-efficient building designs.

“The majority [of districts] are going to try to do the easier things first,” he said.

As in many other states, Massachusetts districts are already reeling from higher-than-expected transportation-fuel costs and employee health-insurance costs. The Massachusetts Association of School Committees is asking the legislature for supplemental aid in fiscal 2007 for what they believe will be a historic increase in heating prices.

Overall, fuel costs in Massachusetts have increased 22 percent this year, while health- insurance costs have increased 11 percent, said Glenn S. Koocher, the executive director for the school committees’ group, which represents local school boards. Districts will have a better feel for their heating costs when they receive November’s energy bills, he said, because the state has already had some very cold days.

Energy Alternatives

Some school districts are making longer-range plans for cost control by looking to a variety of products that are not dependent on traditional energy sources.

New sources include geothermal heat, hydrogen-cell technology, solar energy, and biomass products such as wood and animal refuse. Sustainable architecture—which promotes environmentally building friendly materials and energy-efficient products—has been a trend for several years and is growing in popularity.

The Council of Educational Facility Planners International, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., is sending its members information about energy efficiency and new sustainable products.

‘The Boiler Had to Go’

Even though the costs of installing a new heating system can be high, districts that have done so usually say the effort is worth the cost.

For example, wood-chip burners are becoming more common in schools in Northern states. While the idea of burning wood may not seem environmentally friendly, those districts say they are saving a lot of money by using a renewable resource that is often thrown out, rather than oil or natural gas.

The 300-student Council, Idaho, school district recently installed a wood-chip heating system in its two school buildings. The district had been using a 50-year-old propane boiler that was barely operational and radiant heat—and running up bills of about $10,000 a month in the winter. After much research, district Superintendent Murray Dalgleish decided that the schools, like many of the houses in the areas, should use wood heat. After all, the U.S. Forest Service often burned brush that it had cleared from local forests.

“We were under pressure to make sure we did something different,” Mr. Dalgleish said. “We knew the boiler had to go; it wasn’t ever going to be efficient.”

Using a grant from the Forest Service and an interest-free loan from the U.S. Department of Education’s Qualified Zone Academy Bond program, the district spent $2.7 million to install the wood-burning system. That was more than $1 million more than a new propane heater would have cost, but Mr. Dalgleish said the district plans to save at least $40,000 a year on utilities. Those savings will offset the extra costs within 16 years, he said, and will save the district more in years to come.

The district recently received its first loads of wood chips for free from the Idaho transportation department. The chips do not need to be stored inside; in fact, they burn better when wet, Mr. Dalgleish said. And, he said, the wood emits less pollution than oil heat does.

“Rather than piling it and burning it, they chipped it and delivered it,” Mr. Dalgleish said of the transportation agency’s delivery. Burning wood, he said, “is what we did when we were in the cave—it’s still here; we just kind of ignored it.”

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