Smaller Carbon Footprint Takes a Big Step for School Savings

March 26, 2020
A public school district can find sustainability and education opportunities alongside millions in savings.

For many school districts, shrinking their schools’ carbon footprint is simply not a priority. Feeling the pressure to do more with less funding, as expectations for student performance continue to climb, schools face calls for action on all sides, with limited financial resources. State and federal mandates also make it hard to provide facilities and other critical assets with proper funding.

The list doesn’t stop there. Schools must contend with collective bargaining agreements, increasing pensions, rising healthcare costs, and competing charter schools. In several states, school districts are required to pay tuition for students that opt out of attending public schools to attend charter and cyber schools.
The solar windmill harvests daylight and converts the solar energy into mechanical power to generate clean, non-polluting electricity, while reducing greenhouse gases.ABM

School districts face high facility and utility costs. Unexpected infrastructure costs can strain school districts’ budgets to the breaking point, but that doesn’t make proactively prioritizing facility upgrades any easier.

Virginia Beach City Public Schools is similar to many districts across the nation, but they found a way to turn their facility challenges into a positive, lessening their environmental impact, saving money, and increasing educational opportunities for their students.

Virginia Beach City Public Schools serves more than 70,000 students and is one of the largest school systems in the state of Virginia. The school campus is vast and comprises more than 80 buildings. School officials turned to a local energy performance contractor to help them develop a plan to address their infrastructure needs.

The local energy performance contractor, ABM, began by conducting a technical audit. The audit helped to uncover areas that needed facility improvements and aided in creating energy usage plans for the school district. Utilizing information from the analysis, ABM worked with school officials to develop a customized solution for Virginia Beach City Public Schools.

When that solution was identified that could reduce energy usage, improve learning environments, and mitigate risks associated with several of its facilities, the school system entered an energy performance contracting program with ABM.

The program enables the school system to invest in infrastructure improvements, without incurring upfront costs. The program includes a variety of facility upgrades, and Virginia Beach City Public Schools will use the projected energy and operational savings from the upgrades to fund the improvements. Overall, energy and operational savings are projected to be more than $9.7 million over a 15-year period.

Infrastructure improvements began after an extensive energy audit, which helped the school system determine which equipment needed to be replaced and which equipment could be repaired or retrofitted to operate more efficiently.

Throughout the school system, the project provided upgraded HVAC systems and state-of-the-art facility automation controls to ensure the systems are only used when necessary. Each of the facilities were sealed to control airflow and humidity, while plasma air cleaning systems were installed to control contaminants and provide occupants with clean air.

Each facility was upgraded to high-performance LED lighting systems with state-of-the-art control systems and occupancy sensors to provide indoor and outdoor lighting. The controls and occupancy sensors automatically adjust or turn off lighting when spaces are detected as unoccupied. To date, the lighting system alone has reduced the school system’s energy consumption by 30 percent.

The project also provided Virginia Beach City Public Schools with green energy solutions — solar and windmill turbines, and a geothermal heating and cooling system — to drive savings while reducing its carbon footprint.

Officials installed a state-of-the-art geothermal heating and cooling system at Parkway Elementary School to provide low-cost heating and cooling by pushing water through an underground piping system. The system uses the ground as a heat source in the winter and a heat sink in the summer to control the water’s temperature, which uses significantly less energy to provide sustainable heating and cooling services.

Before installing the geothermal heating and cooling system, Parkway Elementary School relied on an electric boiler and cooling tower to provide heating and cooling. That system used significantly more energy to control temperatures than the ground-sourced geothermal heating and cooling system.

In addition to the geothermal heating and cooling system, officials installed a solar windmill at Ocean Lakes High School. The solar windmill harvests daylight and converts the solar energy into mechanical power to generate clean, non-polluting electricity, while reducing greenhouse gases. The windmill converts kinetic energy generated through the wind into usable electricity to be used to offset electrical utility consumption.

Aside from the energy and operational savings, the school system’s goal for the project was to ensure students have a safe, reliable, and comfortable learning environment. The improved lighting and controlled airflow and temperatures aim to create a more productive educational environment to help improve students’ academic performance.

As part of the improvements, the school system implemented an Energy Education Dashboard, to provide students with real-time data on the schools’ energy consumption. School officials are utilizing the data from the Energy Education Dashboard to teach students about energy awareness and sustainability.

Ocean Lakes High School’s Drivers Education Program benefitted from the installation of an electric vehicle (EV) charging station, which was included in the scope of the project. Students are learning to drive using an EV, while the school district realizes savings from a reduction in the need for fuel.

Virginia Beach Technical and Career Education Center is capitalizing on the results of the energy performance contracting program by providing students interested in mechanical education an opportunity to learn about HVAC systems. Students are learning with a new HVAC Troubleshooting Simulator, which helps to spot and repair mechanical issues relating to the school district’s heating and cooling system.

As a result of the overall project, the district became a certified Green School Division through the Virginia School Boards Association. It received the highest recognition — the Platinum Certification — for its sustainability efforts. This certification recognizes school districts in the state that have taken steps to reduce carbon emissions in their communities. Virginia Beach City Public Schools was one of only fifteen of Virginia’s 133 school districts to receive the Green School Division’s Platinum Certification.

The school system also won the Virginia Governor’s Environmental Excellence Awards’ Gold Medal in 2018. Sponsored by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, the award recognizes successful and innovative projects to improve the state’s environment.

While Virginia Beach City Public Schools originally sought to make much needed infrastructure improvements and reduce spending, the program also resulted in providing new and improved educational opportunities for its students. Not only did this project create a comfortable, safe and reliable learning environment, it also provides hands-on opportunities to learn lifelong lessons about utilizing sustainable energy and reducing consumption.

By investing in its facilities infrastructure to reduce energy consumption and reduce its carbon footprint, Virginia Beach City Public Schools can make long lasting, impactful upgrades that will help provide long-term financial stability, while improving its learning environment.

The Author: Joel Lowery is Vice President of Sales with ABM in Atlanta, Ga. He has 30 years of experience helping local governments and their leadership to provide funding for many of their challenges by implementing innovative solutions through ABM’s energy performance contracting program. For more information, contact Joel at [email protected]