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Energy use in Duluth schools awarded, but savings don't measure up to predictions

Students leave Denfeld High School in spring of 2017. Denfeld and East high schools were awarded Energy Star designations by the Environmental Protection Agency following an audit of energy use. (file / News Tribune)

A new Duluth school district analysis of energy savings that compares 2017 costs to pre-Red Plan numbers shows projections made a decade ago were nowhere near reality.

Blame rising electricity costs, a footprint that increased over the course of the long-range facilities plan and unsold buildings for much of that disparity. With plan manager Johnson Controls using current-at-the-time expenditure data to predict annual savings going forward, the number offered in the 2007 project proposal to the state was about $833,000, which doesn’t factor in inflation. Last school year only $126,000 in savings were realized.

District officials say it’s more complicated than the numbers might suggest, and doesn’t mean the district hasn’t reduced energy consumption in the years following the completion of the $315 million long-range facilities plan, also known as the Red Plan.  

Critics, however — while not disputing that there have been energy savings — contend that the new report shows that the Red Plan was oversold to district officials and taxpayers.

Efficiency despite growth

Denfeld and East high schools were just awarded Energy Star designations by the Environmental Protection Agency following an audit of energy use. To earn that designation, the building needs to perform better than 75 percent of like-type buildings in the U.S. East scored at 98 percent, and Denfeld 97 percent.

The district last year reduced electrical consumption by nearly 1.5 million kilowatt hours, a 12 percent decrease from 2007. But the cost of that electricity was nearly $350,000 more. Consumption of natural gas has decreased by about 40 percent, and total heating costs were about $445,000 less thanks to cheaper fuel and more efficient boilers. The boiler in the torn-down Lester Park Elementary was more than 100 years old.

Water use decreased by about 60 percent between 2007 and last school year, but cost savings there were minimal, at less than $30,000. Water conservation measures reduce consumption, but stormwater treatment is expensive because of fee increases, said Dave Spooner, district facilities manager.

There are savings despite the larger district footprint, Spooner said. The Red Plan initially was expected to drop the footprint of the district’s buildings to 1.8 million square feet. It currently sits at about 2.5 million square feet, while the sale of unused properties would bring that number to about 2.1 million.

The district is still paying to maintain the former Central High School, Secondary Technical Center, and Nettleton and Rockridge elementary schools. Last year it cost about $159,000 combined to pay those buildings’ utilities.

Some of the extra expense from the Red Plan comes from the cost to be compliant with American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers standards. Pre-Red Plan, the district did not meet industry standards in this area, Spooner said, because buildings were not properly ventilated. That meant kids and staff had less fresh air than they do now. New and renovated buildings were given energy-efficient air handling units and efficient boilers, and staff were trained to operate the buildings more efficiently using the energy-saving features.

“We have more square footage now than we had in 2007, but the overall cost is less,” Spooner said of total energy costs, noting the average cost per square foot is 78 cents today, compared to 90 cents in 2007. “It really validates the hard work and effort that went into this project to make it successful and save the taxpayers money.”

Despite the negative publicity of the long-range plan, building designers, architects, contractors and installers did their jobs well, and school staff do their jobs well, Spooner said, and that’s reflected in the report.

The district has earned more than $400,000 in rebates from Minnesota Power over the past few years for its energy conservation efforts.

Lincoln Park and Ordean East middle schools have the lowest unofficial Energy Star ratings (they haven’t been audited) because of the swimming pools in those buildings. Spooner said the pool rooms need to constantly stay in “occupied” mode to prevent condensation issues.

Criticism of plan

There is no question savings come from new boilers, for example, said Loren Martell, a longtime critic of the Red Plan who in 2012 went so far as to gather more than 2,000 signatures to guarantee a financial review of the plan by the state auditor.

But variables such as energy-consuming additions to the buildings and vacant properties requiring utility service offset savings from energy efficiency, he said.

"There are some things to applaud," Martell said, "but I do think modern construction should have produced better results than this, especially factoring in the upfront costs. I believe our schools were oversold as green buildings."   

District CFO Doug Hasler said the reductions shown in the report are encouraging, since energy costs are a large chunk of a school district’s budget.

“I view this (analysis) as a routine thing that we as a school district need to do to be tracking things in terms of cost control,” he said, and it’s something that should be replicated in other areas.

Duluth School Board chairman David Kirby said he’s more concerned with the cost to maintain Historic Old Central High School than past savings projections. Most of the $18 million-plus in restoration and work needed for the 125-year old building is yet to be done, and it’s gotten more expensive to maintain over the years. In 2007 utilities for the building cost 57 cents per square foot, and last year they cost 97 cents.

That’s a problem the district faces today, he said — figuring out how to preserve the historic building while not bearing the cost alone.

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