Middletown Schools Working to Reduce Energy Use

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

MIDDLETOWN, R.I. — Ed Collins, a public building supervisor for 20 years, has long been an advocate of energy conservation and “green” initiatives.

As facilities manager for the Middletown Public School Department, he works every light fixture and utility bill to cut expenses and reduce the school district’s impact on the environment. Ongoing upgrades include the installation of weather stripping and sensor lights. Buying environmentally friendly school supplies is a must.

“We’re the first school district that went green with paper products and cleaning products,” he said. “It saves us money and reduces our dependency on fuel.”

Frequent energy audits — at least once every three years — at the town’s five public school buildings, he said, is a “no-brainer” for reducing heating and electricity costs.

“It’s a necessity,” Collins said. “In this job you are running buildings. If you’re really serious about doing a good job, you want somebody to come in a evaluate what you are doing.”

His meticulous spreadsheets prove the audits get results, delivering annual savings of 10 percent to 15 percent for the district’s half-million square feet of building space.

“We need benchmarks to go off of, without that we have nowhere to go,” Collins said. “We need accurate data, without that I don’t know how you make a decision.”

In recent years, Warwick, Providence and North Smithfield, have embraced the benefits of routine energy audits. Other municipalities, such as Newport, Portsmouth and Jamestown, have signed on to a new National Grid cost-sharing audit program.

Since 2005, National Grid has won over several municipal customers by offering to pay 70 percent of the audit’s cost, while the city or town pays the remainder — about $5,000 — over 24 months.

“I have never had anyone turn this down,” said Anita Hagspiel, LEED analyst and program manager for National Grid.

Using software and a consulting team that includes municipal managers, National Grid’s four-step, whole-building assessment provides immediate and long-term improvements to lighting, refrigeration and HVAC systems.

“It’s like a very holistic one-stop shop,” Hagspiel said. “We do want the customer to look at everything.”

Collins attests to the benefits of the National Grid audits. Electronics giant Honeywell has also done five audits for his department, including a recent review that resulted in replacing all of the halogen and halide lights with power-saving T5 light bulbs in the school district’s four gyms and cafeterias.

But Collins hasn’t stopped at audits. About seven years ago, he took cost cutting to a new level by buying energy directly on the open market. Rather than relying on the prices from Rhode Island’s sole utility, Collins expanded his options by buying electricity and natural gas for his school district through an online energy exchange.

By monitoring price trends on Web sites like futrues.com and Silent Sherpa, he manages an energy portfolio of long- and short-term gas and electricity contracts. The fuel and power are then delivered to the schools through National Grid’s transmission lines.

Big corporations and universities typically run energy portfolios, not public school departments. “Do I think anyone else is doing it?” said Collins, repeating the question. “No.”

But the savings for Middletown have been impressive. Last year, Collins paid about 5 cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity, much less than the 8 cents he would have been charged had he locked everything into a single multiyear contract. By actively managing his energy budget, Collins estimated he creates a “cost avoidance” of about $150,000 annually.

The reduced expenses don’t necessarily translate into more textbooks for the school district, he said, but it helps manage a bare-bones budget. “It’s not really savings,” he said, “it’s avoiding paying more in the future. So there’s nothing in our pocket, but there is less coming out of it.”

His investment strategy puts 60 percent of his energy budget into price contracts of about two years. The remainder is parked in contracts of a year of less. Locking into anything longer is too risky, he said.

Municipalities that buy fixed prices for 10 years, Collins said, are losing money. “That’s a huge risk when you lock in long term like that,” he said. “It’s like buying a stock and can’t get it for 50 years.”

Collins also holds down costs by carefully reviewing meter readings from National Grid, and challenging bills that seem out of line with his projections.

Every city and town, he said, should be double-checking its utility bills. “The more you are involved, the more you are going to learn, and say, ‘Wow! I can save some money.’”

These energy-savings and environmental policies also have taken hold in other Middletown departments. Plans are underway to switch from chemical to organic fertilizers on all playing fields. Major upgrades have been made to the wastewater system. And the town is studying sites for wind turbines and photovoltaic installations.

“We’re constantly looking at alternative sources,” Collins said.

After squeezing all he can from existing energy programs, he hopes other incentives and funds will come along to help retrofit heating systems or offer greater subsidies for wind and solar projects.

Meanwhile, the energy audits and efficiency upgrades will continue.