Report: Energy projects could save Portland schools, city $950K a year

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PORTLAND — The School Committee this week was scheduled to review a list of projects that could increase energy efficiency and decrease operating costs.

The committee was scheduled to conduct a first reading on Wednesday of a report drafted by Ameresco, which spent nearly two years touring and studying school and city facilities.

Following the first reading, the committee will hold a workshop to discuss which projects it would like to undertake over the next couple of years.

The report outlines nearly $12.8 million worth of energy-related and capital improvement projects. The improvements could result in an annual savings of nearly $950,000, meaning the projects would pay for themselves within 14 years.

Committee member Jaimey Caron, who leads the Facilities Committee, said the challenge will deciding whether to include capital improvement, or regular maintenance items, in the energy contract.

Caron said suggested improvements, like replacing roofs and windows, are only loosely related to energy efficiency and take the longest to pay back.

According to the report, it would take more than 134 years, at an annual savings of $10,000, to recover the $1.4 million in project costs for new roofs. And it would take more than 80 years to recoup $1 million in costs for new windows.

While on the surface the payback period for those projects may seem too long, Caron said the committee may decide to include them, especially since the School Department has fallen so far behind on building maintenance.

Caron said the department has more than $40 million in facility needs. Without any state funding or increase in its annual $1 million CIP allocation from the city, he said the energy contract may be the district’s only option to get those jobs done.

“Do we take the bird in hand, which is to include the projects in the Ameresco contract?” Caron said. “Is that better than waiting to develop a more comprehensive approach that will get us two birds in the bush? That’s the biggest question for me.”

Caron said the answer to that question will largely rest on where the annual savings will go – an issue that has yet to be settled.

About half, or nearly $6.9 million, worth of identified improvements are for school facilities, which could result in annual savings about $448,000.

The report indicates the schools could save the most money by upgrading heating controls, a project that also has one of the shortest paybacks. The $613,000 cost would be recovered in under three years, saving the district about $208,000 annually.

Lighting upgrades, meanwhile, could save the district more than $34,600 a year, resulting in an eight-year payback for the $282,000 project. And $366,000 worth of water conservation measures could save $35,500 year, resulting in a 12-year payback.

More than $2.6 million in boiler upgrades could save $119,000 a year – a 22-year payback.

Since there is no formal contract for the committee to review, Caron it’s unclear whether the city or school will receive those savings and what the impact will be on the school’s annual CIP allocation from the city. 

“Basically, what I would hope to do is do what (the city is) doing,” he said, “which is to put (the savings) into a dedicated fund balance to service our buildings.”

Also, unclear is how the projects would be financed. Typically, companies perform the work at no upfront cost to the client and are paid through the initial years of savings.

Companies usually guarantee projected savings, promising to pay the difference if the conservation measures fall flat.

The committee is scheduled to vote on a list of recommendations on Aug. 18. That list will work its way through the joint city-school fiance team, before being forwarded to the full council in September.

The projects could be completed by March 2012.

Wednesday’s School Committee meeting starts at 7 p.m. in Room 250 of Casco Bay High School, 196 Allen Ave.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net

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