ATWATER -- A detailed energy study will be undertaken in the next month to see if a project to replace old fluorescent lighting and install a centralized thermostat system in Atwater elementary schools is feasible.
After a two-hour Monday night study session, trustees voted 3-0 to have Trane in Sacramento conduct a thorough analysis of energy options. The project could utilize a 10-year zero-interest loan of as much as $1 million from Pacific Gas and Electric Co.
Atwater Elementary School District Superintendent Melinda Hennes said approval of the detailed study of energy use within local schools is the final phase of project design before formal authorization of the project by the board.
Hennes said Trane will study power usage while considering the amount of savings that might be captured by replacing lighting and switching thermostats with ones that can be controlled from a central location.
Trustee Kelly Fincher said she wouldn't want to see sacrifices in classroom comforts for students and teachers through the energy project.
Tim Sisson, director of Trane's educational facilities business development program, said his company did a preliminary energy audit at two Atwater schools and presented its findings to trustees.
Sisson said his company finished similar projects at Kings Canyon Unified School District in Reedley and in Marysville.
Hennes said "intelligent" thermostats would replace ones in classrooms and office space. Significant savings may be possible if heating and cooling systems could be powered down on weekends and vacations. Teachers working in their classrooms over a weekend could override the system temporarily to keep temperatures comfortable.
Board President Lena Mendoza said the program sounds as though it might be beneficial to the district to save money energywise, and the study will see if it's something that needs to be addressed.
Hennes said 15 percent of the district's lighting fixtures are old fluorescents that no longer are being made. The district would have the ability to fine-tune its energy usage and balance energy savings with personal comfort.
Mark Johnson, PG&E energy solutions manager, said the amount of a loan from the utility is based on the length of the project. Payments can be made equal to energy savings, and rebates from the customized program can be deducted from loan amounts.
Johnson praised the newer lighting, which lasts 10 times longer than older units. Energy bills would be lowered, and the program could make classrooms better learning environments.
Hennes said energy costs will continue to escalate.
In November, Atwater schools will transition to "time of use" billing, a change from flat-rate billing. Also coming up will be implementation of "demand-response" billing, which charges the district higher rates for power used during periods of peak use.
"In order to protect our general fund unrestricted dollars we need to reduce energy usage," Hennes said. "This will require us to manage the cost of power while we maintain the comfort of our clientele, staff and students."
New thermostats would allow an assigned employee to manage a power-use schedule throughout the district within guidelines established by users.
If it becomes apparent that the district will be able to capture savings significant enough to serve the debt of the program, the board will consider moving the project forward, Hennes said.
If it appears the district will not be able to realize savings large enough to serve the debt, the information gained can be used to plan alternative solutions to power-usage issues, Hennes said.
The lighting conversion project must be done before Jan. 1, 2013, to qualify for PG&E rebates.
"After the cost of the equipment is covered by energy savings, we would then be operating our district with lower energy expenses, and that is money in the bank," Hennes said.
After the district determines its possible energy savings, then solar power may be examined, she said.
Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or email@example.com.