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Energy Initiatives | Feature

The Big Green Savings Machine

A community college in Kansas is slashing its energy bills with a $2.7 million infrastructure overhaul. Utilizing energy performance contracting and a tax-exempt financing program, upfront costs for the overhaul have been practically nil, while savings are "growing exponentially" all over the campus.

As colleges across the nation look at ways to save energy and become more environmentally friendly, at least one Kansas community college has gotten a head start in the game. In fact, Independence Community College in Independence, KS, is already shaving more than 39 percent annually from its energy bill, with its total savings rising exponentially as fuel costs increase.

Conducting the Audit
"The higher fuel costs go, the more dollars we save on energy," said Greg Eytcheson, chief information and facilities officer. He said the school's energy conservation plan kicked off in early-2007 with an investment-grade audit of the college's 10 buildings and its major and minor systems.

The audit not only factored in big systems like heating and air conditioning, but also reviewed the school's lighting infrastructure, roofs and vending machines. Eytcheson said it was conducted as part of ICC's continued commitment to operate "as green as possible," and the need to save money by upgrading older systems. Uncertainty about the budget for facilities renovations and repairs brought on by declining state revenues and a slight reduction in enrollment also played into the picture.

According to Eytcheson, the college turned to the audit to find ways energy usage could be reduced while still providing a comfortable learning environment across the campus. Conducted by an outside firm that was chosen through a bidding process, the review was used to develop an energy savings performance contract for the community college. The contract was based on the advice of the third party firm, plus input from the ICC's board of trustees, the president, administrators, faculty, staff and students.

Funding the Overhaul
The audit analysis allowed for the reallocation of budgeted funds in the college's utility, operations and maintenance categories, according to Eytcheson, who said ICC also received a grant from the Kansas Corporation Commission (under the guidance of the Facility Conservation Improvement Program, or FCIP) to cover half the cost of the energy audit.

According to the FCIP's Web site, the program enables public agencies (state, municipalities, counties and schools) to use a tool known as energy savings performance contracting to access financing for planning and implementing projects quickly and easily. Tax-exempt financing with an attractive interest rate makes the projects more economical and reduces the payback period.

Eytcheson said ICC funded the $2.7 million project through a lease made possible by the FCIP program. By folding expenses such as roof repairs and new lighting fixtures--both of which were needed anyway--under that lease umbrella, the college was able to upgrade much of its campus with very little upfront expense.

ICC's campus was equipped with thousands of new light bulbs, electronic ballasts and motion detectors that automatically turn the lights off when rooms are unoccupied. The HVAC system covering the college's main academic building, student union facility, fine arts building and gymnasium was replaced.

The Unexpected Perks
The upgrade resulted in a few new perks for the school. "We never had air conditioning on our gym floor," said Eytcheson, "but we were able to add that feature as part of the audit and the upgrade."

Other changes included the installation of energy conservation on the school's vending machines. Candy machines only "turn on" when someone is using them, for example, and soda machines cool the products they house for a few hours a day, instead of 24/7.

"We're using the same, reduced number of kilowatt hours," said Eytcheson, "but every time energy costs increase, our savings grow exponentially." Those cost savings exceeded ICC's expectations. "Everything the [consultants] promised has come true, and then some," said Eytcheson. "We're definitely saving the money that they promised we would."

Of course, any large project comes with its drawbacks. In Kansas, for example, seasonal issues can crop up quickly with projects that involve equipment replacement and roof construction.

"By the time all of the equipment was ordered, we were in the middle of winter," said Eytcheson. "There were days when one end of a building was very cold, and other days when the halls were filled with people who were on ladders, replacing light bulbs."

The project took about three months to complete, and "went smoothly, for the most part," according to Eytcheson, who sees energy audits and performance contracts as a good option for institutions looking to cut significant costs from their energy bills.

"If colleges aren't doing this," he said, "they're wasting money."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at [email protected].

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