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Schools energy savings generate cash surplus
Gainesville system has saved $800K over last two years with program
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An energy-savings program has been generating some needed cash for Gainesville City Schools, officials report.

In the last 22 months, the school system has saved more than $800,000 on its utility bills, said David Shumake, assistant superintendent of instruction.

School officials can use some of the savings to pay for district expenses, he added.

"This money goes back into the district's general fund," he said.

In 2008, the district began a campaign to cut energy costs and signed a four-year contract with Energy Education, Inc., a company that generally works with schools and churches to build a customized conservation program.

Last year, the district's savings totalled about $433,000, Shumake said.

Shumake also predicts significant savings are ahead for Gainesville schools. If the energy-savings program continues, the district projects to save about $5 million in utilities in the next 10 years, he said.

As part of a partnership with Energy Education, the company provides data support and energy specialists to the district for a monthly fee, and consultants look at how the system could run more efficiently.

The biggest savings so far has been for the heating, ventilating and air conditioning systems that use the most energy, Shumake said. The district has 570 rooftop units for its eight facilities. To lower costs, the machines are regularly monitored, updated and shut down when buildings are unoccupied.

District leaders also created guidelines for conserving energy such creating central locations in school buildings for items such as coffee makers and fridges, rather than having appliances in individual classrooms, Superintendent Merrianne Dyer said.

"There was a lot of push back about that and it was implemented in the first year of our deficit recovery. But when we saw how much we saved, we also realized we were saving jobs," Dyer said.

The district noticed significant savings in June and July, when they consolidated their summer programs into two facilities instead of three or four, Dyer added. The school buildings are used by Gainesville Park and Recreation and the YMCA for day camp during those months.

At the start of the program, the district helped schools become more aware of their consumption habits. Staff and students became more diligent about unplugging computers during holiday breaks and students were encouraged to turn off lights when they left the classroom.

"This is a people-oriented program," Shumake said. "That's what makes it so successful. It's not just a couple people doing things, it's everybody."

Shumake said that along with financial savings, there are important ecological reasons to conserve. The amount of energy conserved by Gainesville in the last 22 months is the equivalent of taking 870 passenger cars off the road, he said.

Officials also notice students are taking the lessons home with them to share with their own families.

"Families are saying they're aware of the different kind of light bulbs and the students are telling them to turn off lights," Dyer said.

Though the contract with Energy Education is set to expire in two years, the district can continue to receive support from the company so long as it retains an energy specialist, which it intends to do. The specialist coordinates efforts with Energy Education. Shumake said the company will offer services for free at that time.

Shumake said the district's next pursuit is to qualify each of its schools for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star program. Buildings that earn the Energy Star designation use an average of 40 percent less energy than typical buildings. The program enables schools to apply for specialized grants tied to energy conservation.