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Achieving Energy Efficiency in New Orleans Schools

1 Sep 2014

Navigate to page 18 of this issue for the original article.

In 2009, New Orleans school operators were spending $1-2 million more than necessary on utility costs each year, based on a study commissioned by the US Department of Energy. One of the lead authors, Joe Ryan, now works as Green Coast Enterprises’ Senior Building Engineer. The firm’s consulting arm, GCE Services, built its team around expertise in building science, urban planning, and data analysis to implement hands-on energy-saving solutions in all types of buildings, including school buildings.

This is paying off for the local schools. Over the past nine months, GCE Services has saved over $125,000 between three New Orleans schools, and the savings continue to grow. How did we do it?

Below, our experts answer important questions about how to save energy (and money) in schools.

Why is saving energy in New Orleans’ schools so difficult? Schools are unique buildings with different needs and considerations than most other building types. Unlike an apartment building, schools are not occupied overnight. But unlike an office building, various parts of the building have significantly different schedules, fluctuating day-to-day and week-to-week. Many schools, such as Andrew H. Wilson Charter School in Broadmoor, also function as community centers, adding another layer of complexity to their scheduling needs. It helps to think of these buildings as a collection of separate areas, rather than a single entity. This allows you to address each area’s heating and cooling needs separately, and with a little bit of automation a schedule can be set for each area to serve the heating and cooling needs of different parts of the building only when conditioning is required. The humidity in New Orleans and the requirement to bring significant amounts of fresh, outdoor air into the school makes it even more difficult to achieve energy savings. A finger on the pulse of our ever-changing weather and a keen understanding of the equipment designed to condition the outdoor air makes all the difference.

Is it all in how a building is designed, or do ongoing operations matter? Both good design and skillful operators are necessary to achieve energy efficiency. While energy efficient design creates a higher savings potential, it isn’t enough to build a state-of-the-art facility and run it on autopilot. Many new school buildings are equipped with sophisticated controls, but these can malfunction or be overridden, with issues going unnoticed for long periods of time. Poor operations and maintenance can lead to a range of consequences including overspending on utilities, shorter equipment lifetimes, and occupant discomfort. How a school functions after opening its doors is just as important as how it’s built.

What is the secret to maximizing energy efficiency in schools? Unfortunately, there are no clever tricks or silver bullets to ongoing energy efficiency. In this case, the “secret sauce” is made of diligent oversight and building science expertise. For example, even after schedules and desired temperatures are set, it helps to keep at least one pair of eyes on a building days, nights, and weekends to ensure that equipment is not malfunctioning or running when it should not be. Investigating the roots of problems and addressing them as they arise saves money in the long run. Though sometimes difficult, it is more productive to investigate why a room is freezing in the summer than to just plug in a space heater to address the symptoms.

What about installing new, more efficient equipment, or providing renewable energy? These are also viable options for improving energy efficiency. In fact, we advise our clients on building improvements as well as ongoing operations. It’s all in setting priorities. Currently, there is a lot more hype surrounding green retrofits than around operational improvements, although the latter are usually low-to-no-cost with shorter (or instant) paybacks. What we do is focus on the operations first, suggesting improvements such as LED lighting and better thermostats or controls as appropriate. The money saved from low-cost improvements can often be put to better use financing larger, more glamorous retrofits.

Our unique landscape of charter schools enables the operators to reinvest energy savings back into the classroom, helping the children of our city become better educated and to achieve their goals.