A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

David Webster: October is Energy Awareness Month and reduced usage helps bottom line of KY schools

As we kick off what has traditionally been Energy Awareness Month, it is important to note the impact lowered energy usage can have on not only the environment, but also on the finances of public entities.

Nowhere is the impact clearer than in Kentucky’s schools.

The Kentucky School Boards Association has worked with local school districts since 2010 to better manage the energy usage in their buildings. Kentucky will soon have its 400th school building in Kentucky with an ENERGY STAR rating. The state is No. 3 in the nation in the percentage of ENERGY STAR schools, trailing only Utah and Hawaii. In 2017, more than 30 percent of Kentucky’s eligible public school buildings were ENERGY STAR labeled, compared with approximately 10 percent nationally.


That’s a big deal. To be certified as ENERGY STAR, buildings must reach a strict level of energy performance standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Buildings must perform better than at least 75 percent of similar buildings nationwide to earn the required score of 75 or higher.

Statewide, the average energy utilization index in public school buildings has dropped from 65 in 2010 to 52 in 2016. (EUI is a measurement of a building’s annual energy use (kBtu) per square foot unit area.) Owen County Schools, which boasts the state’s best score, dropped district-wide EUI from 43 in 2010 to 33 today.

While the recognition for energy savings is nice, the actions taken to gain that certification translate to real dollar savings for local school districts. Across Kentucky, schools have been able to save a cumulative total of more than $123 million since 2010.

For instance, Southside Elementary School in Woodford County was the winner of KSBA’s inaugural Battle of the School Buildings competition for cutting its energy consumption by nearly 25 percent from 2015 to 2016. The school converted lighting in the gym from metal halite to more highly efficient LED units and replaced the T12 lighting system with LED fixtures and bulbs, saving nearly $7,000 annually.

Garth Elementary in Scott County, one of the state’s oldest schools, focused first on improving HVAC and controls to reduce energy usage. Updated lighting has helped reduce the building EUI to 44.8. After updating the gym and media center with LED lighting, implementing procedures to turn off lights when appropriate, and not propping doors open during arrival/dismissal, the school has now reduced the EUI to 25.5.

McCracken County Schools focused design and construction efforts on building an energy-efficient building when the new McCracken County High School opened in 2013. With more than 350,000 square feet of “conditioned space,” the school was designed to be ENERGY STAR, with installation of many energy efficient/sustainable features, including geothermal heating/cooling and LED lighting.

These savings have been strategically guided by the team at the KSBA School Energy Managers Project, or SEMP, which was initially funded by a $5 million federal economic stimulus grant in 2010.

Under the guidance of director Ron Willhite, the project helped to place and train 35 energy managers to serve 130 school districts. Having local energy managers in the schools, with support from KSBA-SEMP, allowed districts to capture cost savings through consumption savings, rebates, rate corrections and utility rate case interventions supported by local districts.

While utility rates will increase over time, KSBA-SEMP also strives to ensure schools are paying a fair rate. One way the program does that is by working with schools on intervention in utility rate cases.

Federal funding for the program expired in 2012, but the program was able to continue through partnerships with Louisville Gas & Electric and Kentucky Utilities through the 2018 fiscal year and with Kentucky Power Company through the 2017 fiscal year.

The utility funds are used to support district employment of school energy managers, and for analytical and engineering support and professional development by KSBA-SEMP. LGE and KU have recently committed to seek approval from the Kentucky Public Service Commission to extend their funding support through the 2020 fiscal year.

We know that local schools could save even more money – in fact, over time, the potential for cumulative savings is more than $30 million, ranging from as much as $5,000 in the smallest districts to as much as nearly $6 million in the largest district.

KSBA-SEMP was recognized nationally in 2014 and 2015 as an ENERGY STAR Partner of the Year for Energy Efficiency Program Delivery, and for Sustained Excellence in 2016 and 2017. We’re proud of that distinction, but even more proud that the program has saved real dollars for school districts facing already tight budgets.

David Webster is president of the Kentucky School Boards Association

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