School district aims to lower its energy bills

By By Dick Mason The Observer July 02, 2012 02:27 pm
Work designed to make Union High School and the entire Union School District more energy efficient will begin soon.
 Work designed to make Union High School and the entire Union School District more energy efficient will begin soon.

UNION — Union High School’s classroom building, which features one of the most ornate building entrances in the region, was constructed in 1911, the same year electric starters replaced hand cranks in automobiles.

Motor vehicles have come a long way since 1911. So has Union High School — in every way but energy efficiency.

UHS’s classroom building has almost no insulation, an outdated heating system for the school’s gym wastes large amounts of energy and many other related problems exist. 

The issues explain why the Union School District has monthly energy bills that sometimes reach $10,000 during exceptionally cold winters.

The days of such five-figure bills, like the hand-crank automobile, may soon be only a memory. The district’s heating bills should drop significantly next winter because of the Oregon Department of Energy’s new Cool Schools program.  

 Some $370,000 of work will be done at UHS and throughout the Union School District over the next six months to boost energy efficiency. The work will be financed by the Cool Schools program and likely will not cost the district any money over the long term in part because it will save the district about $31,000 a year in energy, operation and maintenance costs, said Beth Stewart, a member of the Union School Board. 

Stewart has been working with the Oregon Department of Energy since October to get her district involved in the Cool Schools program, created by the Legislature in 2011.  

About $100,000 of the $370,000 of work to be done in the Union School District will be funded by tax credits. Schools, of course, do not pay taxes, but school districts in the  Cool Schools program are eligible for tax credits, which would pay about 35 percent of their energy project costs. These tax credits are sold to businesses or individuals who pay districts 92 percent of what they are worth.

The Union energy conservation project will also receive $38,000 from Avista Utilities and $7,000 from Oregon Trail Electric in energy conservation incentives. 

This money combined with the $100,000 from the tax credits will leave the Union School District with $225,000 to pay. This will be paid via a low interest loan provided by the Oregon Department of Energy. The interest rate for the loan will be 2.5 percent.

Since money from the tax credits and Avista and OTEC will not be received until after the work is done, the loan the district will receive from the Oregon Department of Energy will be $370,000 and not $225,000. This loan will be paid down to $225,000 once money from the tax credits and Avista and OTEC energy incentives is received.

Should the district pay an interest rate of 3 percent, the initial loan payments, set to paid over 15 years, would be $30,600 a year. The loan payments will be reduced significantly or the length of the payment period will be shortened once it is paid down to $225,000.  

The Union School Board voted 4-1 Wednesday to pursue this loan from the Oregon Department of Energy. Union School District Superintendent Jon St. Germaine will sign papers for the loan at a meeting later this month.

 Board member Mark Wing voted against the proposal. He is worried about the district, which is financially strapped due to falling enrollment and reduced state funding, taking on debt at this time.

Stewart said the district needs to act promptly or the chance to take advantage of the Cool Schools program could be lost.

“This is a window of opportunity we need to take advantage of. We don’t know if this (Cool Schools funding for energy conservation) will be available at this time next year.’’

A second reason to act promptly is that the pipes the school district uses to pump heat about 25 yards from the high school to its gym are aging and could begin breaking down.

“They are at the end of their life,’’ Stewart said. 

The pipes will not be needed once the energy efficiency work is done because a separate heating system for the gym will be installed as part of the energy project. It will be a gas-fired, forced-air heating system in the gym building. Presently the gym is heated by a boiler which also heats the high school. This system is inefficient because it uses heat generated in a boiler at UHS. This heat is pumped more than 25 yards underground to the gym. So much heat escapes from the uninsulated pipes that it melts the snow and ice on the pavement above them in the winter.

 This system is also inefficient because the boiler heats both the high school and the gym. Heat can not be diverted to only the gym or the high school. 

Since more energy is needed to heat the gym than the high school, the boiler is often running at times when the high school does not need additional heat. Classrooms in the UHS classroom building are often raised to uncomfortably hot temperatures each winter as a result. Stewart said students often wear shirtsleeve shirts in the winter and teachers open classroom windows. 

Once the gas-fired forced air heating system in the high school gym is installed, the boiler at UHS will be replaced with a smaller efficient one. 

The gas-fired, forced air heating system in the high school gym and the new UHS boiler are two of 18 projects the Cool Schools project will cover in the Union School District. The projects were selected based on the results of energy audits by the state and Sharpe Energy Solutions of Ashland. 

A portion of the other 16 energy conservation projects that will be completed over the next six months include the:

• installation of a new hot water system in the high school gym and low flow shower heads in the locker rooms.

• installation of a new high-efficiency water heater and commercial water softener in the S.E. Miller building.

• installation of weatherstripping where needed on the school district campus.

• the updating of temperature controls in the S.E. Miller and Hutchinson buildings. 

• sealing off the classroom vent to the uninsulated attic in the Hutchinson building. 

• the retrofitting of exterior and interior lighten fixtures. 

• the sealing off of old classroom vents to the uninsulated hallway attic in the S.E. Miller building. 

• the sealing off of closet cavities that are open to the uninsulated attic in the Hutchinson building.