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State energy audit shows potential savings

Posted: January 24, 2013 - 1:40pm

An energy audit of Alaska public facilities uncovered some of the most, and least, energy efficient buildings in the state. The study, conducted by Alaska Housing Finance Corp., evaluated 327 investment grade audits performed on public facilities.

The study estimates there are 5,000 public buildings in Alaska, spending more than $641 million on energy every year. If appropriate measures are taken, the study calculates a potential energy cost savings of  $125 million yearly to the state.

An investment grade audit examines a building’s energy use history, design, location and includes a cost-benefit analysis of options to make the building more energy efficient, according to Nathan Wiltse, a project manager and building energy economist for the Cold Climate Housing Research Center.

It found Anchorage School District buildings average an energy use index, or EUI, of 121,000 British thermal units per square-foot per year, while Fairbanks North Star Borough buildings average 70,000 EUI.

This is despite Fairbanks being in a much colder climate. Factoring in climate differences increases the heating energy use gap. That is done with what is called a heating degree-day: the number of degrees a day’s average temperature is below 65 degrees Fahrenheit.

Fairbanks has roughly 14,000 heating degree-days per year, and Anchorage about 10,000, Wiltse said.

When climate is factored in, the gap widens. Fairbanks North Star, or FNSB, district buildings average 4.8 EUI per heating degree-day. Buildings in the Anchorage School District, or ASD, average a use of slightly more than 11 EUI per heating degree-day. The average for public buildings audited in the study is 9.7 EUI per heating degree-day.

Mike Abbott, assistant superintendant of support services for ASD, agreed that the numbers show a clear gap in heating energy use between the two districts, but said they don’t tell the whole story.

“The comparison with (FNSB) is useful, in that it definitely will help us identify opportunities for further improvement, but because of the way the analysis was conducted it might lead you to believe we use twice as much energy per square-foot as Fairbanks, and that’s not necessarily the case,” Abbott said.

He noted that a disparity in the number of school buildings in Anchorage and FNSB could account for at least part of the energy-use difference. Abbott said about 30 schools were audited in each district, accounting for roughly 75 percent of schools in FNSB and only 25 percent in ASD, leading to a partially complete data set.

Wiltse, who helped prepare the data, concurred. He also said FNSB schools had a “tight range” of EUIs providing a reliable average and Anchorage schools had a “very wide range,” possibly skewing the final average.

Despite using less energy in the audited buildings, FNSB still pays more for it, at a cost of $2.38 per square-foot per year, than ASD at $1.92. This is due to much higher fuel prices in Interior Alaska.

“There are boilers in some (ASD) schools that have not received maintenance in several years because they just don’t have the money for it,” Wiltse said.

The report comes at a time when ASD is facing large budget shortfalls. The district recently announced plans to cut or leave vacant 100 administrative and support positions, saving approximately $4 million.

Abbott said the district has an incentive-based program already in place in which schools can reduce energy bills over the prior year and receive a check for 25 percent of the savings. That money then goes directly into the school’s supply budget.

“It gives the school a chance to buy textbooks or other instructional supplies,” he said.

The program usually returns money to about 20 schools a year, Abbott said.

Statewide, Arctic and Northwest region schools spend the most on energy per student with yearly costs approaching $3,000. Interior and Southeast schools spend slightly less than $2,000 and Southcentral and Kodiak schools pay about $1,500 per child. Climate, energy prices, building size and school enrollment all play a large part in those costs, according to the report.

The real problem for ASD may be a lack of money to invest in energy, and subsequent cost-saving upkeep, according to Wiltse

Alaska Housing Finance Corp.’s Energy Program Information Manager Jimmy Ord said the audits were done with specific criteria in mind.

“This is a biased, non-random sample of public buildings. We chose the higher energy users and the ones that had a higher square-footage to them,” Ord said. “The audits were focused on some of the high energy users to identify some of the problems and where we could make our buildings more efficient.”

The report, funded by 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act dollars, provides “benchmarking data” that had not been available before, Ord said.

The study makes more than 50 recommendations for increasing energy efficiency. Above all else it pushes for education in proper energy-saving procedures.

“Auditors found controls bypassed and operating in the ‘hand’ and manual mode to make them operational. This occurs simply because the technician has not been trained in building operations or the trained technician has moved on and (the) replacement does not know how to operate the systems,” the report states.

It also encourages building managers to look for “low-hanging fruit,” or quick and inexpensive ways to reduce energy usage. This could include shutting down appliances seasonally when they are not needed or reducing ventilation when buildings are vacant to prevent unnecessary heat loss.

Abbott says ASD is evaluating all of the findings and will move forward with proposals to the school board on how to improve its energy efficiency within a few weeks.

Elwood Brehmer is a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce.

 

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