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Red Plan's energy savings fall short of prediction

Corey Karren, Duluth Public Schools building system technology coordinator, checks the new, energy-efficient water heater at Piedmont Elementary School recently. (Clint Austin /

The Duluth school district says it is beginning to see significant energy savings from the long-range facilities plan even though it is forced to heat a number of buildings it should have sold by now -- but it may never achieve the savings estimated by the company it hired to manage the massive consolidation project.

Red Plan manager Johnson Controls estimated in 2007 that roughly $830,000 would be saved annually in heat, electricity and water bills from the closure and consolidation of buildings and the use of new and renovated schools. In 2012, the district saved less than half that: about $395,000. Once schools like Central High School and Morgan Park Middle School are sold and the Red Plan is complete, annual savings should total about $700,000, said Kerry Leider, property and risk manager for the district.

"It would be nice if it was right on, but it's not realistic to expect that," said School Board Chairman Tom Kasper. "Once we realize the full potential of closing unnecessary buildings, that's when the true savings of the utilities of the plan will kick in."

The full $833,753 projected annual savings might never be realized. Many of the buildings that were constructed or renovated as part of the Red Plan are bigger than originally planned and so use more energy. The district's building footprint was supposed to shrink by a total of 500,000 square feet but, once the plan is completed, will shrink by only 413,000 square feet to a total of about 1.8 million square feet.

The new buildings are more efficient but they're also more ambitious when it comes to heating and ventilation.

In most cases, Leider said, the ventilation of the old buildings was well below current industry standards. The new systems draw in more fresh air, but that takes more energy to heat. Still, it is expected that the overall efficiency of the newer systems and the new construction itself will offset the extra cost of heating more fresh air and dehumidifying the buildings.

Energy hogs retired

Even with poor ventilation some of the old buildings were energy hogs. The old Lester Park Elementary School cost more to heat than the building that replaced it that's nearly twice the size.

The new Lester Park Elementary, which combined the populations of the former Lester Park and Rockridge schools, cost $17,421 to heat last year. The old Lester Park would have cost $25,000 or more to heat based on its 2007 bill adjusted to 2012 rates. Rockridge is still being heated while it awaits sale, but at only about half the expense as when it was occupied.

The heating efficiency of the new buildings has to do with the better insulated roofs, walls and windows, Leider said. Modern boilers and controls allow staff to manage and regulate temperatures and when to bring outside air into schools and classrooms.

The new Lester Park also is using less water thanks to more efficient fixtures and the elimination of iron pipes; users tend to run the water longer with iron pipes to let the water get clear or cold, Leider said.

On the other end, the high-tech systems in the new school required about $14,000 more for electricity last year than Lester Park and Rockridge paid together in 2007.

Still evolving

The unsold buildings are the main reason the Red Plan's energy savings have not realized full potential, said Bill Hanson, business services manager for the district.

Future analyses will show the true extent of the Red Plan's cost savings, for better or for worse, as the last new buildings are opened and remaining old buildings are closed and eventually sold.

The new Lincoln Park Middle School was not part of the current analysis because it wasn't open last school year. Congdon Park and Myers-Wilkins elementary schools have yet to open in their renovated states, and other new schools open just a year or less still have kinks to be worked out.

"During the first year the buildings don't operate as efficiently as they are supposed to," Leider said, citing for example someone leaving fans on for 24 hours when they shouldn't.

But district officials still see the energy savings they've realized since the inception of the Red Plan as good news.

"I was very cautious about making statements about energy efficiency of new and renovated buildings," Leider said.

It was easier to talk about cost savings from closing buildings, but until you get into operating the new buildings, savings in that area are uncertain, he said.

Seeing that improved and new buildings are operating more efficiently and saving money "feels good," he said.