Schools eye stimulus funds for energy efficiency

Stimulus Schools Energy
Tate Haynes, 33, chief engineer for Henry Sibley Senior High School, points out one of the many sensors that regulate the lights in classrooms and hallways of the school in Mendota Heights, Minn., Friday, March 13.Craig Lassig / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The candy machine at Henry Sibley High School knows when students roam the halls and automatically powers down when they've gone home. The basketball court still shines, but under the glow of fluorescent tubes that suck up a fraction of the juice the old lights used.

Thanks to such measures, energy costs across the school district in this Twin Cities suburb already are down by nearly a third. Officials want to trim the expenses even more, but that will require investment in upgrades.

The federal economic stimulus dollars could be just what they need. Some of the billions of dollars trickling down from Washington will be used to make public buildings more energy efficient. School officials hope long-term savings can sprout from those one-time upgrades — the types of projects that get shoved aside when budgets are squeezed and tax levies fail.

"The money we spend on electric, water, gas and oil — those dollars compete with dollars for textbooks and teachers," said Jay Haugen, superintendent of the West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan district.

Billions in stimulus for energy efficiency
The economic stimulus package contains $6.3 billion for state and local governments to make energy usage more efficient, including in public buildings. Schools are eligible for some of that — in addition to a $22 billion zero-interest bond program for school construction projects created in the recovery package. Nationwide, there are roughly 80,000 public school buildings.

While state governments know how much money they'll receive, details about how the money will get from Washington to Main Street schools haven't been worked out. Schools in many states will have to compete with other public buildings for energy dollars, and in most cases projects will require local matching funds.

Steve Nadel, executive director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, said the conversation about how best to spend the money is just getting started, and it's likely to play out differently in every state. But he expects schools to be in a prime position to snag dollars for simple things, such as new light bulbs and windows, and pricier projects including more efficient furnaces and new roofs.

School officials in Idaho are batting around ideas for spending up to $24 million of the energy money on projects focusing on schools. Paul Kjellander, administrator of the state's Office of Energy Resources, said a sizable chunk could be used to install solar panels on school buildings.

Boise school district leaders want to tap into the pot to rid their buildings of drafty windows, power-wasting lighting and inefficient heating and cooling systems. Savings, however modest, could be critical for a district about to lay off 122 full- and part-time teachers.

Wayne Davis, a former superintendent who now directs the Idaho Association of School Administrators, said lowered utility costs would free up money for higher-priority initiatives. "It's things like class size reduction," he said.

Money could allow for more expensive upgrades
People who track school improvement projects say many schools have already done what they can to conserve energy, such as unplugging computers at night and shutting off banks of lights.

"That only takes you so far," said Judy Marks, associate director of the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities. Now, Marks said, schools that "had the will but not the way" to make more expensive upgrades could move those projects ahead with federal help.

The money is enticing to the head of the La Grande school district in northeastern Oregon, where residents voted down two recent levy requests that would have paid for projects like heating system upgrades, window replacements and roof repair. Superintendent Larry Glaze said the investment in building fixes pays off.

"In these extraordinary times that we're in, obviously every dollar counts," he said.

In the Mendota Heights district, Haugen said officials will look to the federal stimulus money to fund the next steps on energy efficiency, such as increasing the number of classrooms equipped with sensors that will shut off lights if there's no movement or sound. There's also talk of lighting school parking lots with energy efficient LED instead of incandescent bulbs.

Half the district's classrooms already have automated lighting, and the high school is seeing savings from investments in two new high-efficiency condensing boilers and an automated ventilation system that shuts down parts of the building that aren't being used.

The efficiency upgrades the district has already made are saving the district $100 per pupil, or about $500,000 a year.

"Take that across the whole state and that's quite a lot," Haugen said.