At the Indian River School District, we’re used to figuring things out on our own. That is, until we heard about the U.S. Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Challenge.




We joined the program because it motivated us to aim for the goal of reducing energy intensity by 20 percent within 10 years and it also offered an exchange between our engineers and others across the country working with similar challenges and solutions.

Joining the Better Buildings Challenge is the latest demonstration of our commitment to reduce our energy impact and climate footprint. It began with a desire to implement new green energy solutions for our schools.

We started to examine geothermal ground source heating systems, which are generally used in hotter climates, with colder climates considered less than ideal conditions with unreliable results. It wasn’t the first solution that came to mind for our community in rural upstate New York, where temperatures can sometimes dip to 35 degrees below zero.

We knew, however, that the words “that’s not going to work” would not stop us from pursuing the best and most effective technology for our teachers and students. We found that these heating systems have been widely used in Canada, a climate similar to ours and just across the border from us. And the idea of reducing our carbon footprint, while also saving money on energy bills (district costs are about $1.4 million annually) was very attractive.

As a result, in 2003 we decided to take the leap and try a new technology that would bring our outdated and aging heating systems into the 21st century.

Happily, we discovered that geothermal is extremely effective in cold climates. The school buildings that have converted entirely to geothermal are now about 50 percent more efficient than the buildings using old fuel heating infrastructure.

Even more exciting is that the total energy usage for these buildings is now about three times lower than any other school in our district, and the statewide average. In addition, we are now building a .65 MW solar field to provide electricity to our schools. In half the lifespan of that solar field, we’re getting our energy entirely paid for through energy savings. We’ve been able to deploy a winning combination of energy efficiency, cost savings and reduced carbon footprint.

Being in such a cold climate, we can’t afford boilers going out and unstable heating sources. Geothermal supplies a steady, reliable source which ensures students and teachers are safe and comfortable throughout the winter. Old systems would heat an entire corridor even if only one classroom was in use, but our new digital controls allow us to be precise, and pipe heat into just one classroom if that’s all that’s needed.

We hope the region surrounding the Indian River School District can benefit from the leadership and ingenuity demonstrated by our groundbreaking projects, and foster the next generation of clean energy engineers. We are now offering electives in energy and environment to our students, and are using our own buildings as a way to educate kids on the power of green energy as we send them out into the world. We hope that they can remember that seemingly impossible problems can be overcome with a little persistence, creativity and imagination.

The progress our school district is making in energy efficiency is explored in more depth on the Better Buildings Challenge website.

By Jim Koch, Indian River School District

Jim Koch is the business manager for the Indian River Central School District in Philadelphia, New York. There he has developed, presented and executed general budgets for a 4,300 student rural school district covering over 284 square miles.