LONGMONT — Since 1993, he has nagged St. Vrain Valley School District employees to turn off the lights, turn down the heat and shut down computers at the end of the day.
Every Christmas and spring break, he heads to the district’s 50 portable classrooms to check thermostats and make sure they are turned down.
“We can’t control the cost of utilities or rate increases, but we can control, to a degree, the use and how much we spend,” said Ralph Bozella, the district’s energy education manager. “I’m not a cop, just an educator.”
Bozella has placed timers on pop machines, so they shut down at the end of the day — a savings estimated at $13,000 a year — and he meticulously checks each and every utility bill to make sure the district is getting charged the correct amount. In fact, in 10 years, he said, he has caught $300,000 in overcharges.
So far, cost-avoidance software, Bozella’s practices and other energy-saving measures adopted by St. Vrain employees have saved the district about $4.5 million since Bozella was hired in 1993.
“How many teachers could that money get us?” he said.
From 1993 to 2002, combined electrical, natural gas and water/sewer utility costs for the district have risen by about 28 percent, from $1.69 million to $2.16 million.
“The $4.5 million in savings is what we would have spent had the district not taken up energy-savings practices,” Bozella said.
Utility rate increases, added square footage, the addition of portables in 1999 and an increase in the use of computers, microwaves, pop machines and refrigerators over the years have all accounted for the rise, Bozella said.
“There is only so much you can do,” said Stu Reeve, Poudre School District’s energy manager. “A district is going to use energy no matter what.”
A portion of the increase occurred in the fall of 2000 when the natural gas market collapsed.
“We had to sign a new contract,” Bozella said. “This raised the cost from $2.35 a decatherm to $9.54 a decatherm.”
It takes about 33 decatherms to heat a classroom at Heritage Middle School for the month of January. In April, it takes about 15.
St. Vrain’s natural gas expenditures skyrocketed from $419,983 in the 1999-2000 school year to $742,147 in the 2000-01 school year. During the 2001-02 school year, expenditures fell to $631,948.
Residents across Colorado and elsewhere in the nation saw increased fuel costs because of fuel demand, a frigid winter and inflated prices.
“The price for a decatherm in past years was between $1 and $4,” Xcel Energy spokesman Mark Stutz said in a February 2001 Daily Times-Call article . “It has gone as high as $10 and $12 this year. The fact of the matter is the price has gone to unprecedented levels.”
Even though the district shelled out 76 percent more in natural gas costs during the 2000-01 school year, its use of natural gas increased by only 15 percent, largely because of added square footage.
During the same year, the district added about 202,000 square feet with the addition of two new schools, Prairie Ridge Elementary and Silver Creek High School.
The district also added more portables, which typically have higher energy costs, at Frederick Middle School.
“We’ve been doing good considering the portables,” Bozella said.
According to Bozella and Rex Hartmann, the school district’s director of operations and maintenance, portables are energy hogs.
“It costs us about 67 cents a square foot to heat and cool district buildings,” Bozella said. “Portables cost us $2.50. They are tough, because they are electrically heated and cooled. They also have their own thermostats.”
Because portables are individually operated, if a teacher leaves the heat on, the district has no way of knowing.
“That’s why I go out there,” Bozella said.
Currently, the district has 50 portable classrooms, which it began adding in 1998, and will add four more this fall, Hartmann said. Two of those will be added to the seven existing portables at the overcrowded Prairie Ridge Elementary. Fall River and Eagle Crest elementary schools also will each get one portable.
Since 1998, when the district began adding portables, electricity usage has gradually increased by 34 percent, from about 14 million kilowatt-hours to 18.6 million kilowatt hours. This increased usage also can be attributed to 483,000 additional square feet.
Also, since 1993, the district has seen increased use of computers, televisions, microwaves, pop machines and refrigerators at buildings, which leads to even higher costs.
“Almost every classroom has a TV and VCR now,” Bozella said. “Each of these has a tuner that is on all the time. It doesn’t sound like a huge draw, but when you consider 1,300 to 1,400 classrooms with one of these, it begins to add up.”
About $1.7 million of the $4.5 million in savings was not generated from simply turning off the lights and turning down the heat.
Beginning in 1997, the district took out a $3.5 million loan from Wells Fargo to buy and install energy-savings equipment at most schools. The upgrades included more efficient lighting and heating and air conditioning units.
The $1.7 million in savings has gone toward the $3.5 million loan, which must be paid back by 2011.