According to Wayne Lowe, energy manager for Shelby County Schools in Alabama, controlling energy costs is a major challenge facing the district. "We've placed a high priority on this area. At the rate that we're growing, we can't afford to make mistakes." Lowe believes that the energy cost issue is under control through the use of an innovative energy management partnership with Trane (La Crosse, WI) that guides the school in making energy-related decisions.

Located southeast of Birmingham in the heart of Alabama, Shelby County is the state's fastest-growing county. During the past seven years it has grown at a rate of 35%. The growth can be attributed to job creation in industry and commerce, both locally and within the broader Birmingham area. Residential growth in the county is also dramatic.

Large And Getting Larger

The Shelby County School System is the seventh largest in Alabama. The board of education employs 1,571 professionals. Including support personnel and bus drivers, a total of 2,554 employees maintain the school system. The district operates eight high schools, eight middle schools, 17 elementary schools, a technology school, and the Linda Nolen Learning Center. Three new elementary schools were completed in the fall of 2000, and others are in the planning phase. All of the district's schools are accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

Lowe points out that the 35 schools operated by the district, along with administrative buildings, comprise well over 3 million sq ft of space. Most of that space is both heated and cooled, using a variety of systems. The climate of central Alabama has about 1,650 cooling degree-days and 3,300 heating degree-days in a typical year. Alabama Power is the electric utility serving the area. The rapid growth of the district has meant that decisions on heating and cooling systems and controls have been needed in rapid-fire order.

In 1996, the district was facing aging hvac systems in many of its older buildings, and growth rates that were necessitating building additions and many new school facilities. The board of education authorized the administration to establish a relationship with a single-source provider of energy-efficiency solutions. The goal was to achieve documented savings that would justify system improvement. The hope was that these savings would actually finance the improvements. The board also felt that such an arrangement would help the district to design new facilities that would operate at optimum efficiency.

Program For Efficiency Selected

After investigating a variety of programs, the district signed an agreement with Trane called a Performance Agreement for Comfort from Trane ( PACT(tm)). Trane worked with the district to develop a phased approach to plant improvements and additions. The effort began with replacing many existing classroom units and controls with systems that were appropriate for current energy markets and designed to run at a far more efficient level.

An example of the program is control system improvements at one facility that had a cost of less than $10,000. Lowe points out that this school was "once our greatest energy abuser." With the control improvements, plus ongoing technical support from Trane, this particular investment was recouped through reduced utility costs in a matter of months.

The PACT program also included improvements in the lighting systems in school district buildings. Incandescent and older fluorescent lighting were replaced with task-directed, high-efficiency systems.

"For this customer, cost savings come from the greatly improved energy efficiency of new electric boilers and heat pumps, new lighting systems, and other state-of-the-art equipment. Additional savings came from utility company incentives that offer lower rates to schools in exchange for dramatic improvements in efficiency," says Trane's Asset Management Services (AMS) regional manager, Greg Tatro.

New Units Qualify For Special Rates

In the ongoing phase of the project, the manufacturer and the school district planned a replacement of several gas-fueled units with all-electric packaged rooftop heat pumps. The Trane Voyager(tm) units allow the school to qualify for lower electric rates that Alabama Power offers for all-electric conditioned space. The units are scheduled to match the occupancy periods of classrooms, but can easily be overridden or changed to adjust to changing building use.

The total four-phase effort involves approximately $8.8 million in capital improvements, yielding direct energy savings that deliver on the promised results. Tatro says, "The beauty of a long-term project is that the improvements really do pay for themselves, and more."

In addition to the improvements that the school district made in existing facilities, Lowe and his staff worked with Trane and various school architects to optimize new facilities for energy efficiency. Lowe says, "I give this efficiency program much of the credit for our ability to heat and cool our facilities at an annual cost per sq ft that is substantially below the national average."

He continues, "This feat would be impressive even if the challenge stayed constant, but it is even more impressive when you consider that we have added five new facilities in the past two years." He notes that company representatives worked with architects to enable attractive building designs that are also highly energy efficient. Lowe points out, "Most of these newer schools have large, open common areas with high ceilings, and yet the systems and controls we have in place keep energy costs within our budget." ES