Last updated: October 23. 2013 11:13PM - 1962 Views
Mark Bell Contributing Writer

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Harlan County Schools may pursue a partnership arrangement with the Harlan Independent and Letcher County districts to affect savings in its energy use.

During Monday’s regular meeting of the board of education, Ron Willhite, director of the Kentucky School Energy Managers Project, presented highlights of a plan that has the potential to save the district thousands of dollars in operational costs each year.

Comparing data from local facility utility costs with a standard energy consumption survey, Harlan County actually performed below both national and state averages, Willhite reported, meaning the district is relatively efficient in its use of energy compared to most schools.

However, by implementing policies and using equipment that was “Energy Star” rated, Willhite showed the board evidence the district could improve by at least 15 percent. To be rated with the state’s best performing districts would mean being 35 and 40 percent more energy efficient.

Willhite noted a small number of school facilities in the state are now able to generate more power than they use, thus creating revenue for their district by selling the extra power back to the utility, and relieving their district of the financial burden of energy costs.

The Kentucky School Boards Association (KSBA) Energy Program was established in 2010, Willhite said, with federal funding through the Kentucky Energy Cabinet to address rising costs. The program has managed to generate approximately $30 million in savings across Kentucky in the past three years, he added.

“You can do this without harming the classroom environment,” Willhite said. “Actually, you can improve the classroom environment by doing it.”

While the support from federal funds is gone, Kentucky Utilities is continuing to support the project because they see value in it, Willhite said. KU has contributed $1 million in matching funds to cover the next two years.

The project would require the district to hire an “energy manager” and that position would need to be spread over 20 school facilities to be considered full-time, Willhite told the board. Funds would be available to participating districts for half of the salary, capped at $55,000, during the first year and one-quarter of that cost in the second.

Because Harlan County currently operates only nine facilities, the board directed Superintendent Mike Howard to contact both the Harlan Independent and Letcher County districts to gauge interest in a partnership arrangement.

Training will be provided by KSBA, Willhite added, and the state will fully fund health insurance and retirement benefits similar to other non-federal employees. The district would be responsible for local provided benefits, office expenses and travel.

Willhite told the board that Knox County, Bell County, Pineville and Middlesboro have worked in partnership on this project, while Letcher County has the position established solely in its district.

Surveys conducted regarding school energy use show that between 50 and 55 percent of electricity is used in either heating, cooling or moving air, Willhite noted.

Lighting accounts for between 18 and 25 percent, with a greater need for that expense in high schools due to more powerful gym and athletic lights. Simply moving to LED technology could create great energy savings with no noticeable difference in the lighting, Willhite suggested.

Cooking, refrigeration, office equipment and computers account for less than 10 percent of the energy use in schools. Savings are made by evaluating each school facility, changing or modernizing some equipment, and mostly through modifying behaviors, Willhite told the board.

Board member Wallace Napier, who has been pressing for this issue since joining the board, said he was pleased with the report and hoped the board could move forward with it to help control costs in the district.

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