By. Joe Biluck, Director of Operations and Technology, Medford Township Board of Education
Day in and day out, schools rely on energy to power their operations and ensure students have access to the technologies they need to succeed in the classroom. Given the large amounts of energy consumed during the school year (and the summer), school districts are continually looking for ways to use energy more efficiently and responsibly.
Energy conservation measures are not new. What is new is the emphasis. In 1995, officials at Medford Township Public Schools, a K-8 district in southern New Jersey, were faced with challenges relating to possible transportation fleet operation compliance requirements and how best to upgrade an aging HVAC system in one of their elementary schools. To best address these issues, the district turned to renewable energy. As a result of their research, the decision was made to use biodiesel fuel in their fleet of school buses and upgrade the HVAC system to geothermal. During the course of the twenty years since that decision, these two initiatives exposed district officials to the inherent economic and environmental opportunities associated with the implementation of sustainable practices.
Former General Electric CEO, Jack Walsh, is credited with a number of quotes, one of which is “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.” Medford Township Public Schools learned many years ago that to gauge the effectiveness of its energy conservation program, they needed to create a baseline. In an effort to establish that baseline, the district hired an energy conservation company (whose costs were covered through the savings the district experienced) and a dedicated energy manager. This individual was responsible for gathering cost and usage information from the district’s utility bills for each meter across the district. From that data, baseline profiles were established for each facility.
The energy manager coordinated a number of evaluation activities, including recording room temperature set points, HVAC operating schedules, occupancy behaviors, and lighting use. Based on the observation data gathered, the team developed an energy conservation plan. During the course of the four year program, Medford Township Public Schools saved over $930,000 utility dollars. One of the reasons this program was successful was the integrated approach to program development. Representatives from the facilities department, the curriculum office, and the business office, building principals, teaching staff, students, and the superintendent all played key roles in this program. In addition, the Board of Education adopted new energy-related policies that provided direction and expectations for such things as space temperature limits, the start and stop times of the district’s HVAC systems, and the use of personal appliances.
Present budget pressures no longer support the district’s dedicated energy manager. However, Medford Township Public Schools continues to monitor energy use and implement many of its energy conservation measures. For school districts looking to begin an energy conservation program, it is not necessary to hire a dedicated energy conservation company and energy manager. Realizing significant energy savings can be achieved through the efforts of a fully supported and dedicated champion or group, giving this individual access to necessary resources, and allowing them to develop and implement a fully vetted program.
In the mid-1990s, New Jersey state law prohibited the use of fuels other than gasoline or diesel fuel in student transportation vehicles. To prepare for possible alternative fuel compliance obligations, Medford Township Public Schools began working with the State’s Office of Clean Energy to develop a demonstration program to test the performance of a new fuel called biodiesel. Produced primarily from soybean oil and from feed stocks such as waste cooking oil and algae, biodiesel offered a low cost compliance option for school bus fleet operators. In 1997, the state was awarded $115,000 from the US Department of Energy to fund the biodiesel project. This funding launched New Jersey’s first alternative fuel school bus program. The four year study concluded in 2002. The results of the program revealed that, not only did biodiesel significantly reduce harmful diesel emissions, but the use of this fuel reduced the district’s operating costs by two cents per mile.
Medford Township Public Schools continues to use biodiesel in their school bus fleet. At eighteen years, the district is the nation’s longest continuous user of an alternative fuel in a school bus fleet. During that time, its fleet of fifty-five school buses has traveled over 8,000,000 miles, consumed over 920,000 gallons of biodiesel (B20), and lowered fleet operating expenses by $170,000. The district’s experience with biodiesel encouraged it to use other bio-based (soy) products, including carpet, parking lot striping, cleaning supplies, and motor oil.
Geothermal HVAC Systems
In 1995, Medford Township Public Schools was searching for a solution to address an aging electric radiant heating system in one of its elementary schools. The school was not configured for natural gas so a typical gas-fired boiler was not an option, and the district wanted to add air conditioning to the facility. Not wanting to install a costly electric radiant system, the district chose to install a geothermal HVAC system. Geothermal heating and cooling systems use the surrounding ground to dissipate the building’s heat and take advantage of the ground’s constant temperature of roughly fifty four degrees. The system does not use natural gas boilers or power thirsty chillers and cooling towers to provide cool air, and is typically 30% more efficient than conventional HVAC systems.
Several years after the system was installed, a consumption analysis of the facility’s electrical use was performed. When compared to the facility’s consumption prior to the installation of the geothermal system, the results revealed that, even with the addition of air conditioning and all other factors (e.g., occupant capacity and hours of operation) remaining the same, the facility’s electric consumption dropped by 9%! This positive feedback led Medford Township Public Schools to expand its geothermal program. In 2004, the district constructed two new elementary schools and completed a number of renovations. They installed geothermal HVAC systems in the new facilities and completely replaced an electrical heating system in another elementary school. Four of the district’s seven schools are now heated and cooled using geothermal technology.
Solar Electric Generation
New Jersey is one of the few states in the nation to pass “Net Electric Metering” legislation. These laws allow electric rate payers to install grid connected, on-site electric generation systems, typically solar photo voltaic (PV) systems. By the time this legislation was passed, the district had acquired a wealth of experience and success with sustainable strategies. The Board of Education made it one of their goals to construct solar electric arrays at, and on, their schools.
In August of 2012 the district energized seven separate solar electric arrays, including roof mounted, ground mounted, and parking canopy arrays. The total aggregated electric generation for the system is 2.8 megawatts DC. Construction costs amounted to $22 million, and due to the selected funding mechanism, not one dime of the construction costs was borne by the taxpayers of Medford.
As a result of this project, the district reduced its annual electric costs by $300,000. Additionally, solar electric arrays have been installed at three of the schools using geothermal HVAC systems. These schools now have a renewable energy system powering a renewable energy system. The size of the solar arrays at these schools essentially makes those facilities nearly “net-zero” in terms of energy consumption. Their solar electric system is one of New Jersey’s largest aggregate solar electric arrays in a k-12 district and Medford Township Public Schools is the first New Jersey school district to successfully execute a solar electric Power Purchase Agreement.
A key element of incorporating solar power into the district’s energy plan was informing the public about the benefits of their solar electric program and using the information gathered by the systems as a teaching tool. Kiosks are placed in each school hosting an array and provide basic system information for visitors and data that the teachers can use in their classrooms during science, math, and social studies. The district also plans to initiate STEM-related instruction and information gathered from their solar arrays will enrich the students’ experience.
The New Jersey Energy Cooperative
Over the past twenty years Medford Township Public Schools has amassed considerable experience implementing sustainable strategies. One lesson the district has learned is that independent programs (e.g., energy conservation, energy measurement and verification) and utility bill paying services play a significant role in its sustainability program. This made the district wonder: could they unify these programs into a more powerful and effective energy procurement and management tool?
To test the concept, Medford Township Public Schools crafted a Request for Proposal (RFP) that “bundled” these independent programs. Their efforts led to the identification of an energy solutions partner and the creation of a unique, first of its kind program in New Jersey that provides the district with a low cost method of easing an administrative burden as well as a comprehensive energy management tool, and allows them to purchase electricity and natural gas based on authentic market intelligence. During the district’s most recent bid for electric supply, Medford Township Public Schools reduced its unit cost by over one-cent per kilowatt. This equates to an annual savings of approximately $62,000. Two major factors contributed to this result. The first is the difference in the supplier’s fee structure. Prior to launching this program, Medford Township Public Schools participated in a program that applied a tiered, or multi-level, fee structure. Although the unit cost under this program does yield a savings to New Jersey school districts, it also creates an inflated mark-up to rate payers. The fee structure in the district’s model contains a single mark-up. The second factor is related to risk management. Utilities apply a “risk premium” fee to organizations that they consider energy abusers and/or inefficient rate payers. A rate payer that pulls an excessive amount of electricity will add stress to the utility which will increase their cost. The result is a higher unit cost to the rate payer. Medford Township Public Schools’ comprehensive energy services program demonstrates to the utility that the district presents a “low risk.” This results in a lower risk premium to the district.
Medford Township Public Schools was so confident in this program that they included a provision in the RFP that the successful provider must offer these services to other interested districts as a shared service. A shared service, however, does not fully maximize the potential of this program. To create a more democratic approach to energy procurement, the program needed to expand into a cooperative. Recently, the district’s Board of Education authorized an application to the state of New Jersey to create such an energy services cooperative. In the fall of 2015, the New Jersey Energy Cooperative was approved and the Medford Township Board of Education serves as the lead agency. This cooperative is New Jersey’s first, and only full-service, energy cooperative managed by school districts for school districts. To the best of the district’s knowledge there are only two other such organizations in the nation: one in Michigan and the other in Pennsylvania.
Additional Resource Conservation Initiatives
The energy efficiency measures detailed above represent the major initiatives Medford Township Public Schools has used over the past two decades to reduce its utility expenses. There are a number of other actions the district has employed that also contribute to the program, including awareness campaigns, sustainable new construction design, day lighting, building automation systems, electricity distribution improvements, waterless plumbing fixtures, heat recovery units, and water conservation measures. The savings Medford Township Public Schools has experienced from lower utility bills has enabled them to re-allocate funds to support their educational goals.
For example, the district’s awareness campaigns focus on establishing a “Green Team” in each school. These groups develop site specific projects that focus on student engagement. Recently, the environmental club at one of the elementary schools partnered with a local animal rescue organization to construct a water garden. Not only did this project help solve a water ponding problem at the school, it also introduced students to native plants (and harmful invasive plants), animals, and insects. Another school started a food waste composting program and still another is planning an outdoor classroom. These programs act to support the district’s sustainability efforts by offering more educational opportunities outside the walls of the classroom. They also work to ensure the district’s sustainable mission is properly supported.
Medford Township Public Schools’ sustainable, energy responsible strategies have worked to release significant funds that advance its education goals. Now the district’s mission is to use its operational experience to educate its students about the need to use resources wisely to ensure the same opportunities are available for generations to come. The next logical step for Medford Township Public Schools is to develop instructional opportunities using its facilities and systems as “Learning Labs.” Opportunities already exist by accessing the educational services offered by the district’s network of partners. As an example, in December 2014, the district hosted an educational event with middle school students involved in an organization called the Citizen Science Education Program or CSEP. This program was created two years ago by one of our seventh grade science teachers to expose students to real-world issues and to develop the skills necessary to solve them.
This particular event focused on agriculture and water use. One of the district’s long time partners, the United Soybean Board, sent farmer leaders from Ohio and South Dakota, a representative from Yellowstone National Park, senior business representatives from Georgia and North Carolina, and educational consultants from Ohio and Virginia. The event provided a level of authenticity and richness to learning that students would never get in a classroom setting. As a result, the CSEP students continue to work with one of the scientists to evaluate a new soy-based product.
Particularly interesting was the exchange between the farmer leaders and the students. The farmers showed the students how they determine the proper amount of water and fertilizer their fields require to produce the most yields. Through the use of satellite imagery and specific soil sampling, the farmers can determine where, and in what quantities, to add fertilizers and irrigation. Leveraging technology, these farmers use only the amount of water and chemicals necessary, decreasing water and chemical use on their fields.
The Yellowstone ranger shared with the students how he and representatives from a Georgia carpet company worked to address the tremendous amount of plastic water bottles discarded in the park each year. The solution? The Georgia carpet company uses the plastic water bottles and soybean oil to create a new brand of carpet. Medford Township Public Schools is the first district in the nation to have this product installed in each of their schools.
Leadership is Key
Medford Township Public Schools’ energy efficiency programs are made possible through effective leadership. The Medford Township Board of Education and central office administration use an integrated approach whereby all departments participate in the decision-making process. The Board of Education supports and encourages progressive, yet reasonable, methods to address instructional and fiscal challenges. They provide the necessary latitude to the management team to explore opportunities that may not be ordinarily embraced. Many of the district’s energy efficiency programs may be considered innovative, while others just make sense. It would be very difficult, if not impossible, to move these projects forward without this type of leadership support.
About Joe Biluck:
Currently the Director of Operations and Technology for Medford Township Public Schools, Mr. Biluck has twenty-seven years of experience in the field of educational support services and operations. His involvement with alternative transportation fuels and renewable energy technologies began in 1990. During this time, he has worked closely with local, State, and Federal officials and private sector firms to demonstrate the viability and benefits that sustainable strategies can bring to school districts. Mr. Biluck’s knowledge of these technologies has resulted in the adoption of a variety of innovative programs that has allowed Medford Township Public Schools to realize considerable opportunities to reallocate existing dollars to support their educational goals.
For their efforts, Mr. Biluck and Medford Township Public Schools have received recognition from a number of organizations. He is the recipient of the of the 2007 New Jersey Governor’s Environmental Excellence award in the “Environmental Leadership” category. The district received the same award in the “Innovative Technology” category. Mr. Biluck is the recipient of the 2005 National Biodiesel Board’s “Eye on Biodiesel” award in the “Inspiration” category and was named the 2002 “Alternative Energy Pioneer” by the National Clean Cities program.