Schools get A+ on energy

When Jeff Soderlund started working for the Superior school district 33 years ago, he was part of the bucket and duct tape brigade. Buckets captured the leaks in the school district boiler systems and duct tape stopped them.

When Jeff Soderlund started working for the Superior school district 33 years ago, he was part of the bucket and duct tape brigade. Buckets captured the leaks in the school district boiler systems and duct tape stopped them.

Today, the sophisticated boiler systems are run by a computerized building management system that allows the boilers to burn 1 million thermal units when the weather's frigid, and rolls back to 100,000 therms when milder conditions prevail outside.

The new system is netting real benefits for taxpayers and the school district alike. Over the course of five years, the district has reduced its consumption of natural gas 27.7 percent. In spite of climbing energy costs, the school district's energy saving efforts reduced the cost of heating all the schools from $301,121.77 in 2004 to $259,498.69 last year. More telling according to Buildings and Grounds Director Gary Niemi is the reduction in energy use. In 2004, the district use 431,484 thermal units to heat the schools, but last year only used 311,935 units to heat the same eight buildings. Overall, savings average about 20 percent, offsetting rising costs for energy, he said.

"If we hadn't done anything, we would be paying 20 percent more for energy use," Niemi said. He said a combination of factors - energy efficient lighting, the building management systems operating the schools' environments, and the engineers who manage those systems to maximize efficiency are contributing to the reduction of energy use and operating at peak performance.

The best results are found at the Northern Lights Elementary and Superior Middle schools, followed closely by the oldest and largest school, Superior High, where extensive renovation and maintenance has allowed high standards for performance. The least energy efficient building in the district is Cooper Elementary. Seven of the district's eight schools operate at 75 percent efficiency rating or better. The ratings are based on the Energy Star system developed by the Environmental Protection Agency, the same system that rates appliances and electronics for energy use.


At Superior High, the only school in the district with a pool, Niemi said something as simple as a pool cover allows the district to maintain pool temperatures and has an added benefit of reducing the district's use of chlorine.

"Working on various things like that, we've been able to do a lot in the high school," Niemi said. "All the lighting retrofits. All the boilers have been redone. Even this summer we reinsulated some piping that distributes steam throughout the system. It's just kind of a low-cost thing that hadn't been done before and it just became time to do it."

The reason more hasn't been done at Cooper is it would cost more than the district would recoup in energy savings.

"Back when I started we still had coal-fired boilers in the district," said Soderlund. "We would shovel coal until you had steam. Now it's a very micro process. It's all computerized, from the moment you walk in the building until you go home at night. There isn't a thing that isn't affected by our computer system."

Boilers no longer run as hard when the temperature is warmer outside; the burners turn down when the need for heat is reduced, he said.

"You can actually hear the boilers slow down as the heat is achieved," Soderlund said. He said building engineers would once come in early in the morning to turn on the boilers at the start of the day, and shut them down at the end of the day, after all school functions were over. Today, however, he said the system is so refined there is no need to utilize unnecessary energy between the end of a school day and the start of evening event.

"This is the kind of project we like to see, where there are real kilowatts and therms being saved" said Eric Callisto, chairman of the Public Service Commission. He toured Northern Lights Elementary with Commerce Secretary Dick Leinenkugel on Monday as the two traveled the state to talk about the Clean Energy Jobs Act under consideration by the Legislature.

"If I was a taxpayer in Superior, I would be pleased that our school district is making all of those changes to save tax dollars in terms of their energy costs," Callisto said.

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