Schools feel the heat of rising fuel costs

CVU, Allen Brook employ energy-saving methods

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

It’s a homeowner’s dream: Chopping 36 percent off the home heating bill, or cutting electricity use by 21 percent.

For two local schools, that dream is a reality due to some dramatic changes in the way they do business.

As talk escalates at the state level about the increasing costs of education, Champlain Valley Union High School (CVU) and Allen Brook elementary school have been making changes that not only are good for the pocketbook, but also are good for the environment.

At CVU this year, instead of spending $4,000 a week for oil to fuel the school’s boiler during cold weather, they’re spending $650 for wood chips. A new wood chip-fueled boiler, installed as part of the school’s recent renovations, has been in operation since late October – enough time for administrators to feel comfortable reducing next year’s fuel budget from $110,000 to $70,000, according to CVU Principal Sean McMannon.

“My hope is we’ll be able to reduce it even more the following year,” McMannon said, noting they’re still learning the ins and outs of the system.

CVU is one of about 25 Vermont schools burning wood chips for heat, with another four or five scheduled to start construction this summer, according to Norm Etkind, director of the School Energy Management Program for the Vermont Superintendents Association.

Cathy Hilgendorf, who administers the Vermont Department of Education school construction aid fund, said in an e-mail those numbers suggest that wood chip heat for schools is a big success story in Vermont.

The state school construction aid fund pays up to 90 percent of eligible costs of renewable energy projects; it paid just under $600,000 of the total $665,620 required to install the CVU system, according to Bob Mason, chief operations officer for Chittenden South Supervisory Union.

There are multiple benefits of automated wood chip burners, according to the School Energy Management Program: Wood chips are a renewable source of energy; and because chips are supplied locally – by A. Johnson Lumber in Bristol, in CVU’s case – the money to purchase them stays local.

And, say CVU maintenance staff, the system is incredibly efficient. After burning 20 tons of wood chips – about a week’s supply – they are left with only a 20-gallon bucket of ashes, said Kurt Proulx director of maintenance. The efficient burning means that carbon dioxide emissions – which contribute to global warming – are virtually nonexistent, according to groundskeeper Norm Tourville. The steam that can be seen rising from the CVU smokestack is just that – steam, not smoke, because the wood chips are still wet.

Though the savings are not as dramatic, electricity consumption at Allen Brook School has taken a dive. A 21 percent electricity reduction over the last 19 months has allowed school administrators to reduce next year’s electricity budget by $9,500.

“Most people in schools, when they think about saving energy or electricity, think about replacing equipment – buying new lights, buying more efficient computers, buying a new boiler,” said Paul Grover, president of Shelburne-based Kilawatt Partners, which administrators hired after hearing of the company’s success with Shelburne Community School. “The interesting thing about Allen Brook School is in order to achieve those savings, they spent zero money on equipment.”

Instead of “throwing money” at the challenge of electricity consumption, Kilawatt Partners is “throwing brain power,” said Grover. Williston School District pays the company 60 percent of its savings during its two-year contract, which expires in May, to help them learn strategies. All savings beyond May – an estimated $12,000 a year, according to Principal John Terko – will be retained by the school.

Changes to the school’s computerized energy management system are responsible for three-quarters of the savings, Grover said. Often, he said, computerized systems produce waste because staff members don’t know how to maximize their use. Small adjustments on timing of air handlers, heat and air conditioning result in big savings. About a quarter of the savings ABS has realized, Grover indicated, is a result of behavioral changes – turning off computers and lights when not in use, and removing bulbs in over-lit areas.

“We really weren’t aware of it,” Terko said of the opportunities for such savings. “I think we learned a lot through the process. … I think it’s a good education for kids, too, to be aware of conserving energy in the future.”

Some of what has been learned at Allen Brook is being implemented at Williston Central School, said District Principal Walter Nardelli. Yet, Grover emphasized, savings there may not be as easy to come by; Grover said he does not recall over-lit areas, and the operating systems are managed by easily understandable time clocks, not computers.

“My feeling at the time was that Central needed equipment upgrades more than the service that we offered,” said Grover.