Schools eye stimulus money for energy efficiency

MINNEAPOLIS-ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA - At Henry Sibley High School, the candy machine 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.

Energy costs across the suburban Twin Cities school district are down by nearly a third, but officials want to trim those expenses even more. And the federal stimulus dollars could be just what they need.

Some of the billions of dollars trickling down from Washington will be used to make schools, libraries and other public buildings more energy efficient. Schools eyeing the money are hoping 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.

It's a calculation occurring from small towns to urban centers. Nationwide, there are roughly 80,000 public school buildings.

The stimulus package contains $6.3 billion for state and local governments to make energy use greener and 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.

While state governments know how much money they'll receive, many details about how the money will get from Washington to Main Street schools haven't been worked out. It's unclear much money will flow to schools or what specific school building projects will be eligible.

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 prime position to snag dollars for simple things, including new light bulbs and windows, and pricier projects, including more efficient furnaces and new roofs.

In Idaho, for instance, state officials are batting around ideas for spending up to $24 million of its 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," Davis said. "In rural communities you try to keep comprehensive class offerings."

Those 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 the two latest 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.

Glaze said officials like him are grasping for details on the energy money and eager to get in line.

"Right now," he said, "The word is not coming down to school districts very clearly."

Schools had lobbied Congress to have billions set aside in the stimulus package exclusively for school construction projects. It wasn't fashioned that way, so schools in many states will have to compete with other public buildings for energy dollars. In most cases, projects will require local matching funds.

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

For now, half the district's classrooms have automated lighting, and the high school is already 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 it $100 per pupil, or about $500,000 a year, which gives a sense of the scale of the savings available to Minnesota school districts.

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


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