Thursday February 7, 2013

It is time to consider a major change in how we address the need to upgrade the energy using systems in our public schools in order to reduce costs and improve the learning environment. Creating a state-wide initiative to carry out all cost-effective energy saving measures would allow these significant public benefits.

January 2013 marks the twentieth anniversary of the School Energy Management Program, or SEMP, which has helped Vermont schools improve their energy usage since its inception. The anniversary provides an opportunity to reflect on how schools in Vermont are using energy, how the program assisted them, and to consider better ways to respond to our schools' needs.

SEMP was created at the Vermont Superintendents Association in 1993 as a means of working with Vermont schools to help improve energy usage. As director of the program for the last seven years, I have performed more than four hundred energy audits of Vermont school buildings and have been involved in all energy issues that affect schools. It is no surprise that our state's schools, varying widely in size and in age, also vary in efficiency and in energy use and needs.

When it comes to energy efficiency, we have made significant progress. A recent study by Vermont Energy Investment Corporation has found that Vermont schools, on average, consume less energy than schools nationally and less energy than they were using five years ago. The study also found that schools that recently used the SEMP program used an average of 16 percent less electricity than those that did not; a separate study indicated similar fuel savings following the SEMP visit and report.

With the combined efforts of SEMP, Efficiency Vermont, and committed school personnel, most Vermont schools now have efficient lighting systems and better facilities management. In addition, Vermont leads the nation with about 30 percent of our public school children attending woodchip heated schools. The use of woodchips results both in annual fuel cost savings of about $2.6 million and in positive effects on our overall economy and forest management. Significant additional cost-effective conversions to renewable biomass systems (chips and pellets) can be achieved.

Currently, the greatest need is for major upgrades to heating and control systems and for weatherization. When these systems are improved, we use less energy, save taxpayer money, and, just as importantly, provide an educational environment that is more conducive to our children's education.

Wide-ranging school renovations like these are difficult to execute; most of the work must happen over the summer. There are also complex planning, bidding and financing hurdles and many competing priorities for limited staff time. Retrofitting our schools one by one is both time-consuming and, unfortunately, inefficient.

Without a strategic and unified approach, we are foregoing the opportunity for much greater savings and our schoolchildren and school employees are missing out on substantive improvements to their learning and work environments. For these reasons, I am recommending that there be a state-wide comprehensive initiative to perform all cost-effective energy improvements in all of our public schools. A centralized effort that works in collaboration with school personnel, SEMP, and Efficiency Vermont will help address all of the barriers to having this work performed. Because of the economies of scale and reduced administrative overhead, we can make our schools more efficient at lower cost.

The full program cost should be borne state-wide because, with the state education fund, we all share in the savings to our schools. The alternative -- continuing with the current piecemeal approach -- means wasting taxpayer dollars on fossil fuels that could be used instead for modernizing our schools' energy using systems.

While implementation of this proposal will be complex, the basics steps and reasons to achieve the goals are straightforward and easy to agree upon. The benefit to our environment, our taxpayers and our children, will be well worth the investment and hard work.

Norm Etkind is the director of the Vermont Superintendents Association's School Energy Management Program. He is a Certified Energy Manager and Certified Building Commissioning Professional and writes from Woodbury.