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Feature: Top performer

By Larry Schwake on 03/22/2010

Back in 2005, Ronald Wilcox, superintendent of the Madison County School System, requested an energy-efficiency assessment from Waste Reduction Partners, an advisory team of retired engineers based in Asheville. This assessment revealed several areas of opportunity for improvements and cost savings at most system facilities, including a high school, a middle school, three elementary schools, a special-education building, administration and a maintenance facility with a bus garage.

A green plan: Madison County School Superintendent Ronald Wilcox (far right), started with one idea — increase building efficiency. (Maintenance Director Richard Paxton, left, and WRP Advisor Larry Shwake, right).
photo by Jonathan Welch

The 2005 assessment identified attractive areas for upgrading and correction in all facilities, giving both cost and payback estimates for most of them. Using this and many other inputs, Wilcox, the school administrators and the school board began to tackle some of the most pressing issues and under-funded areas.

The Hot Springs Elementary School had a failing central boiler system. The middle school's HVAC system was designed with inadequate controls, causing some rooms to be too warm and others too cool. The high school needed new windows, new lighting and HVAC controls improvements. With lots of opportunities for comfort, performance and efficiency improvements, school officials sought avenues to fund this multimillion-dollar need.

In 2008, the Waste Reduction Partners team received another request for help, but this time Wilcox wanted to see if an Energy Saving Performance Contracting approach could help the school system achieve energy-cost improvements as well as improvements to the quality of the school environments. The organization includes Maintenance Director Richard Paxton who brought with him training and experience in building maintenance and construction. As a WRP advisor, I joined Paxton in revisiting the 2005 audit to update and understand the tasks needed. The buildings were generally cleaner and better maintained but still had the same update needs, as the 2005 audit had detailed.

Wilcox and Paxton agreed on one principal need from WRP: "Please help us get hold of this 'greased pig' called performance contracting" — a unique project approach, differing from conventional contracting. The performance contractor scopes the energy project to generate cost saving, which pays for the project loan over time. School officials' comfort level with having the energy-saving company (ESCO) "experts" come in and take over, tell them what they were going to sell them, and then measure what they did — so they could be handsomely paid — just did not fit well with the conservative folks on the board at first. The feedback from other school districts that had used this process was not that good.

The approach chosen for this project drew heavily on the experiences of WRP with performance contracting and facilities management projects in the region. One of WRP's volunteers had extensive experience serving as a mentor/facilities manager in a nearby county. WRP also had produced a detailed manual and lessons-learned guide on a balanced approach to energy-saving performance contracting for schools and local governments.

Using these suggestions, Wilcox formed a committee from within his organization, which he chaired. This committee included a school-board member (a lawyer with competence in finance), the financial officer from the schools, the maintenance manager and me. This committee was responsible for preparing a Request for Proposals, which was submitted to the appropriate, state-approved ESCO for bid.

A better heat pump: Hot Springs Elementary replaced a failing central boiler system with classroom heat pumps, providing numerous performance benefits and energy savings.
photo by Larry Schwake

We chose to diverge from the prescribed approach and take a more directed one: "This is what we have identified as needed, and these are the approaches we would like included in your evaluations and suggestions." While this presented some problems for the ESCOs in quoting their estimates, since they all had their forms ready to run, we did, in fact, get a much better package for the effort and were able to control/reduce incremental and overall costs substantially by becoming well-informed buyers.

The key to the success of this project was, most likely, the insistence by both Wilcox and Paxton that they were responsible for its success and that they would make the decisions necessary for accomplishing what was needed. While they were relying on the project management of the ESCO, which is performing well, the coordination with responsible individual decision makers at the school brings this into much improved focus. We have a very knowledgeable buyer using a very knowledgeable seller to both their advantages.

Initial installations were started the summer of 2009 and are ongoing, with a completion date for this $5 million project scheduled for summer 2010. HVAC work was started, in which we were able to prevail on the ESCO to use our data from other area schools to install individual room units with sensors in lieu of large central systems with massive expense and difficult controls. This change alone made operating costs reductions of 50 percent in the beautiful old building where we were able to apply it efficiently. The contractor estimated energy saving to be 36 percent across nine buildings, saving $5.9 million in utility costs over the 15-year contract.

The ESCO also presented an initial training program to the teachers and staff at start up last fall and will provide further training for teachers and for the class levels of all grades upon completion.

The contract also provides ongoing training for the entire maintenance crew on building-maintenance items and controls systems for the next five years.

When a performance contract can provide these kind of improvements to the classroom environment and also become a teaching tool, what more could one ask than to grab this "greased pig"? There is more. The Madison County schools are already operating a new wind turbine at the high school to generate a small amount of power back into the grid, coupled with a computer to measure what it does and how effective it is. And the middle school has PV (photovoltaic — solar panels that provide electricity directly) on its roof and is available for the students and their teachers (and parents) to study, understand and perhaps use.

It is rewarding to know of the green shoots that started here. When you visit a classroom in Mars Hill Elementary, the first graders are now in a cool comfortable room and just bubbling with energy — that's the best! The whole school is now better off because it has taken action to make this happen. Saving money is good too.

[Larry Schwake is an Energy Advisor with Waste Reduction Partners of the Land-of-Sky Regional Council in Asheville.  WRP can be contacted at (828) 251-6622 or ]http://www.wastereductionparteners.org.]