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Schools: District weight short-term costs with long-term energy savings

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

While the Georgetown County School District reviews a $165 million package of upgrades and repairs to its facilities, it is also looking at ways to save money on energy. Work on heating and cooling systems account for 23 percent of the facilities plan. But the issue also reflects a larger question officials face as they prepare to seek voter approval through a bond referendum in November: how much should they spend now to save money in the future?

Superintendent Randy Dozier came to the district in 1999, just as the district began its last round of major capital improvements. Part of that included installing in-wall heating and cooling systems. They cost about $1,500 each. “It saved money on the front end, but they didn’t last very long,” Dozier said.

There are over 600 of those units in district schools. Not only are they wearing out, they are inefficient and use a form of refrigerant that will be off the market in 2020 because of its impact on the environment, said Tony Holcomb, the district’s energy manager. Whatever the alternative, “you’re looking at a significant savings,” he said, but he favors a system that uses groundwater rather than air to maintain the temperature in school facilities.

Last year, the district set up a test of a geothermal heat pump in Room 614 at Rosemary Middle School in Andrews. Holcomb has tracked energy use and compared it with a conventional in-wall unit in Room 613. The temperature range in both rooms is 70 to 74 degrees. The humidity is 50 to 55 percent.

The geothermal unit at Rosemary Middle has saved the district $1,523 over a conventional unit in the last year. At that rate, the district would recoup its investment in the geothermal unit in a little over four years. And because it requires less energy to run that unit, it has reduced the emission of carbon dioxide by nearly 21,000 pounds.

The geothermal unit cost twice as much as a conventional unit, but that included installing pipes that could be shared by up to 10 units.

The $25.7 million included in a facilities plan for the district by M.B. Kahn Construction of Columbia is based on conventional HVAC systems, said Todd Weiss, the project manager for the plan. A heating and air engineer was brought in as a consultant for the district study and said the geothermal system isn’t practical for the schools, Weiss said. A large number of units circulating through the same groundwater would raise the temperature and reduce their efficiency, he said.

But Holcomb, who was named the manager of the year by the state Association of Energy Managers, said “Kahn had some poor experiences in the past.” The system at Rosemary has controls to manage the temperature of the groundwater.

The district has asked Kahn to come up with an estimate for geothermal systems. Holcomb said he is preparing an estimate of what the district could save based on the experience at Rosemary Middle.

Dozier also wants to get estimates on solar and wind energy systems. “I’m a big fan of solar,” he said. Those systems could have the district reduce its electricity demand at peak times, Holcomb said, which is when most of the facilities are in use and when the cost of electricity is highest.

The district spends $2.6 million of its $81.3 million operating budget on energy. Most of that is for electricity, which it gets from three utilities: Duke Power, Santee Electric Co-op and Santee Cooper. The utilities all offer incentives that could cover the additional cost of geothermal heat pumps, Holcomb said.

The district set a $165 million limit on the facilities plan because that is the amount of money that can be raised through bonds that will be repaid at the district’s current tax rate. It plans to issue new bonds as those approved by voters in a 1997 referendum are paid off over the next couple of years. The plan also includes $21 million for athletic facilities, $20 million in technology upgrades, $12.5 million to renovate restrooms and $11 million in general renovations.

The general renovations included replacing fluorescent lights with LED bulbs. The district received a grant from Santee Cooper to test LEDs in a classroom at Waccamaw High. Not only do they use less energy, they are brighter, Holcomb said.

The district also saves on maintenance costs because the bulbs only have to be replaced every 10 years.

“Those bulbs will pay for themselves within four years,” Holcomb said. “They have an incredible lifetime payback.”

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