News: CJ Exclusives

Education Takes Lots of Energy

Costs are rising, even as conservation measures are put in place

Phil Berman is not a teacher, but his job is crucial to the effectiveness of Charlotte’s public schools. Berman is the executive director for building services, overseeing the maintenance and operation of more than 150 school facilities across Mecklenburg County.

“We have to create an environment conducive to learning,” he said, and that takes an increasing amount of effort and expense. Utility costs are part of the operation and maintenance budget in most districts, and it is a significant portion.

Like other school systems across the state, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools are facing a continuing rise in energy costs, even after conservation measures are factored in.

The solution?: More maintenance and better controls.

More than 30 percent of the maintenance budget for New Hanover County schools last year was electricity, a total of $3.54 million in a $11.4 million facilities budget. This was only a 2.5 percent increase over 2004-05, though natural gas doubled in cost that same year.

Other districts are feeling more pressure. The Wake County Public School System is estimating a 16 percent increase in electrical costs over the next two years, from 86 cents per square foot in 2005-06 to more than a dollar by 2008. Coupled with an expected 10 percent growth in school facilities, the county expects to spend more than $20 million a year on electricity alone by 2009.

But Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the largest system in the state, has already reached that level. In 2005, the school reported composite utility costs for natural gas, electricity, and water had increased by 14 percent over the previous year. Costs today run about $1.19 per square foot, and Berman expects that climb to reach $1.28 this year. While natural-gas prices have risen the fastest, the largest part of the utility cost is electricity. CMS budgeted $17.3 million for electric services last year; most of it, 86 percent, is paid from county revenues.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system is one of the largest in the country, with enrollment expected to reach 130,000 students this year. Berman said the system maintains more than 160 facilities, including 152 schools, on a relatively tight budget of $68 million. That sounds like a lot, but Berman said CMS’s per-pupil maintenance spending is only half the national average. That can cause some repairs to be delayed, which has an impact on operating expense in turn.

“What we’re dealing with is a very diverse mix of facilities and systems,” he said. Some of CMS’s facilities date from the 1920s and 1930s and suffer from aging equipment and outdated design. “Some of the older facilities, for example, were not designed for proper ventilation and air exchange,” he said. “There are problems with carbon dioxide levels building up in some places.”

Cost improvements will ride on the ability to maintain and upgrade existing systems. Berman pointed out that energy usage can’t be controlled if the mechanical systems such as chillers, boilers, and air handlers are not in good order.

“The challenge we have is that we’re not adequately funded for preventive maintenance, and that’s a necessary part of any energy management system,” Berman said. “The linkages and dampers which that system controls have to be kept up, too.”

Berman’s staff is using internal studies to prioritize critical maintenance and focus on the least-efficient buildings first.

“We’re not doing enough life-cycle preventive maintenance,” he said. “We are focusing on the easy things such as demand lighting and improving lighting efficiency.” The past four years, CMS has budgeted nearly $1.5 million in capital improvements to the schools’ electrical systems. Savings from lighting improvements are helping offset costs to upgrade heating and ventilation systems, Berman said.

Shedding light

That’s a good place to start. According to the Department of Public Instruction’s School Construction Office, lighting can account for as much as 40 percent of a school’s electrical demand, and air-conditioning to offset the heat created by light fixtures may be 10 to 20 percent of the total in turn. Some schools have appointed student “energy patrols” to check for lights left on in unoccupied classrooms.

Other solutions are more complex but come with a guarantee.

Ameresco Energy Services is a consulting firm with offices in Massachusetts and Charlotte. Lighting control is a frequent part of their recommendations as well as new or better-managed HVAC systems. Even humidity control comes into play, such as covering indoor pools to reduce evaporation when the pool is not in use.

They have just completed a major project with the Alleghany County Schools system in the North Carolina mountains; part of the proposal was a guaranteed 25 percent reduction in energy costs. Other projects under way include a community college and proposals for large public school systems across the state.

“The K-12 market in North Carolina is really just evolving,” said Executive Vice President David Anderson. “California and the Northeast have done more due to higher energy costs. Now everyone is feeling the pinch.”

Anderson says that while there are obvious benefits to replacing old equipment with more-efficient designs and modern controls, many times new construction has problems as well. High-efficiency windows and roofing systems, for example, are sometimes sacrificed to save on capital expense. This simply drives costs to the O&M ledger, he said, rather than making the investment up front with the expectation of lower energy costs when the building is commissioned.

“We have worked with some new construction, but typically we do retrofits of existing buildings. And definitely, some of them are only three or four years old,” he said.

Sometimes getting more just takes more

Ironically, getting the most out of public school facilities will drive more costs back into the system.

Although Charlotte has no year-round schools, it already shoulders much of the expected cost of a 12-month schedule, because of extended learning programs and community use of the facilities.

Berman notes the number of summer programs in the schools has grown to the point that larger maintenance projects such as carpentry and flooring replacement are losing their accustomed time slots. About 30 percent to 35 percent of the facilities he manages have classes scheduled during the summer now. In addition, community groups such as pre-kindergartens, day-care programs, and churches are making use of the facilities whenever students are not there.

“The schools are basically in seven-day utilization already,” he said. Berman estimates the operating costs after fees are a million dollars annually, but raising the fees to cover actual costs would likely drive out some of the groups that are now using the schools.

Hal Young is a contributing editor of Carolina Journal.