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Getting schooled on energy savings

Aug. 2, 2016
In this installment of What Works, a Virginia school district is saving millions through a comprehensive energy plan.

It’s challenging enough to overhaul energy use at a single site – selecting and implementing energy-saving technology, getting personnel on board to take responsibility for their energy use, and tracking the results of energy-efficiency initiatives. Loudoun County Public Schools in Ashburn, VA, is working to optimize energy use at 98 buildings, including 55 elementary schools, 15 middle schools, and 15 high schools.

LCPS takes its energy management message into the district’s 80-plus schools. Buy-in from stakeholders ranging from students and parents to custodians and principals is crucial to helping the district reach its energy goals, LCPS’ two energy managers say.

It’s a tall order, and it’s something the district has been working at for more than 20 years with the help of energy consultancy and service provider Cenergistic (formerly Energy Education). But through a combination of benchmarking, proactive maintenance, equipment condition monitoring, and a keen focus on behavior change, the district has saved more than $70 million in expected energy costs since 1993 – and $5.6 million in the past year alone.

A district-wide recognition of the energy efficiency program’s value and importance allows for those significant (and continued) savings, says Mike Barancewicz, an energy education specialist at LCPS. “Everybody gets it,” he says. “It’s not about one department implementing a program. It’s about all of us wanting to be a part of something.”

LCPS connected with Cenergistic in 1993 as part of a for-the-time unusual program in which Cenergistic would share with the district, for a four-year contract period, the energy savings resulting from incorporation of the consultancy’s energy-efficiency programs. After that, all energy savings would belong exclusively to the school district.

A key element of the partnership with Cenergistic was the implementation of EnergyCAP energy measurement and verification software. The software has allowed LCPS to better analyze individual facilities’ resource utilization and set benchmarks for electricity and water use, say Barancewicz and John Lord, another LCPS energy education specialist. This enhanced analysis has brought to light major discrepancies in resource use – and therefore significant opportunities for savings.

A benchmarking report found that one of the district’s high schools had unusually high water use versus a similar LCPS high school. During a vacation period, maintenance team members investigated the issue and found leaks in several pipe joints. So many bad joints were found along the length of one pipe that the district decided to do a major excavation project. And though the project necessitated an outlay of capital, the district saw what it calls “significant savings” on both water and natural gas, as the water that had been leaking was heated.

Energy audits at the start of the program and over the years have revealed major savings opportunities, too. For example, LCPS built a water tower and water treatment facility as part of municipality requirements to get a permit to build a new middle school at the same site. The plan was for all responsibility of the tower to be turned over to the town, but the electric utility account didn’t get transferred as scheduled, meaning that for several months the school district paid the electricity bills for a municipal asset.

Oversights and often-missed opportunities such as these can have a huge impact on an organization’s energy use and bottom line. Yes, it’s important to choose energy-efficient equipment as possible when replacing older, less-efficient assets (whether that’s a cooling system or industrial lighting) or when building new, the district’s energy specialists say. But Barancewicz draws an important distinction between efficiency and conservation and says that the two deserve equal attention.

“Efficiency for us is what you design, how you build,” he says. “Conservation is working with what you’ve built and operating it as effectively as possible. ... All too often, people are tied to one or the other, and they don’t look at it systematically.”

To the latter point, LCPS now tracks energy use at all of its portfolio properties, using 205 electricity meters, 100 natural gas meters, 80 water meters, and 50 propane, 50 diesel, and five heating oil accounts.

And Lord notes: “LCPS does incorporate technologies such as LED lights, demand-control ventilation, and variable-speed drives.” However, he says, “Technology and equipment are just tools. ... People make all the difference.”

In 2008, LCPS’ efforts were recognized at the federal level when the district became an official Energy Star partner. For schools, the federal initiative allows for the rating of energy performance on a scale of 1 to 100 (based on measurements of energy use and goal setting and achievement) relative to similar buildings nationwide; schools that earn a rating of 75 or higher can qualify for the Energy Star label. To date, more than 70% of the district’s schools – 55 buildings as of 2015 – have earned an Energy Star rating, and Lord says the district is on the path toward having 100% of its eligible facilities Energy Star-rated.

Based on Energy Star/EPA data, “Even our worst schools are square in the middle of the national average for K–12 schools,” Lord says. “(But) for our district, being average is bad.” In 2010 and 2011, the district was named an Energy Star Partner of the Year, and LCPS earned Partner of the Year – Sustained Excellence recognition in 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015.

Buy-in from everyone from custodians through principals is crucial to realizing sustained energy-use improvements, Barancewicz says. How does the district achieve this? Through targeted messaging, Barancewicz and Lord say. The two not only carry their conservation-conscious message to staff at individual schools (the district has more than 10,000 full-time employees), but also they attend community meetings and homeowners association events to win broad support for their efficiency efforts.

“You have to take the time to learn who these people are,” Lord says. “Are they interested in being a good steward of taxpayer dollars? Are they interested in reducing environmental impact? Then there’s an energy management message for them.” Tailoring your energy-efficiency message to a particular audience’s interests and priorities will go a long way in getting members of that audience to appreciate the value of what you do and their role in supporting energy management, he says.

“People need to know how their decisions and actions will affect the energy use and cost of the school district,” Lord says. Otherwise, he says, “waste will proliferate.” Perspective on saved costs can provide a compelling argument for better energy management, he notes. For example, the $5.6 million in energy savings that the district recorded in the past year is equivalent to the salary of 117 first-year teachers or the cost of educating 459 students for a year, Lord says.

At the school level, a little cross-school competitive pressure doesn’t hurt in building buy-in, either: It’s important for administrators at each LCPS school to know what their school’s energy consumption looks like relative to other schools in the district, says Lord. It’s a message they can take to students, who can be powerful advocates for smarter energy use.

Good communication about energy initiatives and any new technologies or protocols being implemented can also prevent a handful of skeptical or disgruntled personnel from undermining or derailing your efforts. “Without communication, you can very easily implement an energy conservation measure that turns people against either you as an individual or the organization overall,” Barancewicz notes.

It’s this focus on the people part of the energy management equation that can make or break a facility-wide or organization-wide energy management initiative, Lord says. “Among energy management professionals, there seems to be sort of a magnetic draw toward equipment and technology,” Barancewicz says. “(But) it is people and their interactions with technologies and equipment that make all the difference, and they always will.”

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