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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, June 11, 2009

BKW revamping energy infrastructure, putting up a windmill?

By Zach Simeone

BERNE — The Berne-Knox-Westerlo School District may be revamping its infrastructure with an energy performance contract, and might include a 150-foot, on-campus wind turbine in its plans.

School districts are exempt from local zoning laws, so Berne’s moratorium on windmills will not affect BKW, but plans are in their preliminary stages. The yearlong moratorium is intended to allow the town time to adopt zoning on windmills.

At the June 1 school board meeting, four representatives from Johnson Controls presented an outline of the proposed project. The contract, once negotiated, will see Johnson Controls promising to save the district a specified amount of money, still to be determined, every year.

And it will cost the taxpayers no additional money, if all goes according to plan.

“The contract guarantees that the installation of the energy-saving equipment will deliver enough savings to pay for the equipment and maintenance at no additional cost,” Superintendent Steve Schrade told The Enterprise this week. “The district does bond for the upfront cost, and then uses the savings produced to pay off the bond. The additional incentive for the district is that, in addition to the energy savings, we would receive 80 percent of the project cost in the form of state aid.”

“This is a project for the district to decide what they want to do,” based on the savings behind each piece of the proposed plan, said Andrew Bukaty, a project development engineer from Johnson Controls.

“You pick what you want to pick, and we implement that,” added Alan Zucker, a Johnson Controls account executive. This project will involve a “long-term, collaborative relationship” between BKW and Johnson Controls, said Zucker.

But before signing a project development agreement with Johnson Controls, district representatives will be taking a field trip to Charlton High School in Charlton, Mass., to have a look at the company’s work there. The trip, originally scheduled to take place last Thursday, will instead take place on June 18 or 19, though the date has not yet been finalized, Schrade said. Residents interested in attending the trip can sign up at the district business office.

Johnson Controls has planned a detailed energy audit to take place between mid-June and mid-August. The project, if it moves forward, will likely cost between $1.5 and $1.9 million, and could save between $50,000 and $60,000 a year, said Tom Gebhardt, a project development engineer from Johnson Controls, at the Monday meeting.

In the 2008-09 school year, BKW spent $140,000 on electricity, and $100,000 on fuel, according to Business Administrator Timothy Holmes.

“The field trip to the school in Massachusetts is the next step,” Schrade said. Several district residents present at last week’s meeting expressed their interest in going on the trip.

“It will be discussed again at the next board meeting,” said Schrade. “The board wanted to make sure it was discussed again when the full board was present.” Board member John Harlow was absent from the meeting; the other four members were present.

One main focus of the trip, Schrade said, is to observe the windmill on campus, “To eyeball and listen to it, and get a sense of what a windmill of this size looks like,” he said.

Discussions about energy-producing wind turbines have been heated in the Hilltowns since last fall, when Shell WindEnergy attempted to line the Helderberg Escarpment with its own massive turbines. Shell eventually withdrew its plans, but other companies, like Rhizome Integrated Energy, have expressed interest.

While Berne and Rensselaerville have since passed moratoriums banning the construction of windmills, none of the Hilltowns have zoning that deals specifically with wind turbines. The Berne Town Board passed the one-year moratorium at its March 11 meeting.

A windmill exempt

from local law

During the Johnson Controls presentation, Berne Planning Board Chairman Gerard Chartier posed a question that piqued the interest of many in attendance: Does Berne’s moratorium affect school operation, or is BKW exempt from the local law?

According to Carl Thurnau, director of the New York State Education Department’s facilities planning office, a school district can indeed install a windmill, even if the encompassing town has a moratorium in place.

“The school is exempt from all local law,” Thurnau told The Enterprise. “My office reviews and approves all school district public capital projects, so they would come to us for review and approval. We have a number of districts across the state looking at alternative energy sources, and some are looking at windmills,” he said.

Thurnau added that this project would be subject to both a public hearing and a public vote.

“It would automatically require the district to undergo a public process if it crosses the 100-foot thresholds in environmental conservation law,” he said. Representatives of Johnson Controls said at last week’s meeting that the turbine would likely be close to 150 feet in height.

“The greater the potential for environmental impact, the more public involvement there would be,” Thurnau said. And, since it is a capital project, it would require a public vote.

While there are no other districts in New York State with wind turbines of this size, Thurnau said that his office has approved one large-scale turbine, but none are operating at school districts yet. “We have approved a number of small-scale wind turbines, like a 10-kilowatt,” Thurnau added. “At this point, they’re basically demonstration projects, whereby a district will hook it up to their science curriculum, and students can see that the energy produced provides electrical power for so many classrooms, things like that. It’s basically a curricular attachment, so to speak.”

The plan

At last week’s meeting, district residents had a number of questions for Johnson Controls with regard to the proposed project, which both the town board and its constituents were hearing for the first time.

“I have to emphasize that this is still very early on, and we simply don’t have a lot of information yet,” Zucker told The Enterprise this week. “There is still very much that has to be studied.”

Johnson Controls began with a PowerPoint presentation by Gebhardt, which initially called the levels of energy consumption in the district “not bad.” He listed specific MMBTU levels in each building, where one MMBTU = 1 million British Thermal Units, a unit of energy commonly used in power-producing industries.

The levels were as follows: 94 MMBTU per square foot in the district office; 64 MMBTU per square foot in the elementary school; and 56 MMBTU per square foot in the middle-high school.

When asked by an audience member how these numbers compare to other schools, Gebhardt said that MMBTU-per-square-foot levels in newer, more energy efficient buildings usually fall in the 30s or 40s.

He went on to list specific changes and additions that Johnson controls would make to the school’s infrastructure, such as retrofitting T8 and T12 fluorescent lighting with Super T8 lighting, replacing the high-intensity discharge (HID) lighting in the gym with T5 fluorescent, and installing new occupancy sensors. Exterior lighting, the presentation said, is already efficient.

The project would also make changes to the school’s controls, weatherization, steam traps, pipe insulation, variable frequency drives, refrigeration controls and fan motors, and boiler controls.

But it was the final piece of the plan that got the most attention from the audience: The addition of a 5-kilowatt solar-panel system on the roof of the middle-high school, and a 100-kilowatt windmill in the field behind the school.

“Sufficient load exists at the high-middle school to consume all energy produced by the recommended turbine on site,” Gebhardt read from the PowerPoint.

Then, the questions began.

One resident asked, if Johnson Controls promises to save the district $20,000 a year, for example, but only ends up saving $10,000, what would happen?

“We’d cut you a check,” answered Kevin Stromgren, a systems engineer from Johnson Controls.

Bukaty added that this compensation may include free work on the part of Johnson Controls to meet the previously set goal, if it were not met in the first year; this could mean free additional solar panels, for example.

“Over time, technology changes; we will bring those things here,” said Zucker.

The same resident asked why the proposed project looks to generate such a greater amount of power by wind than by solar — a 100-kilowatt windmill versus the 5-kilowatts of solar energy.

Gebhardt replied that, due to the school’s location in the northeast, wind is more abundant than sun.

Victor Porlier, a Berne resident who has a windmill and solar panels of his own at home, asked what evidence they had, if any, that solar energy is less feasible than wind in the Capital District. Gebhardt said that they could not provide that information at the meeting, but offered to do so when it became available.

Ed Ackroyd of Knox, a former school board member, asked where Johnson Controls had gotten its wind data from, prior to determining that a windmill would be appropriate for the BKW campus.

Gebhardt said that their data was initially taken from Associated Weather Services (AWS). On the company’s website, www.awstruewind.com, there is a tool called windNavigator, which allows users to read wind levels in areas of the United States, Canada, and India. As stated on its website, AWS Truewind seeks to be “a world leader providing renewable energy consulting services to developers, investors, and governmental and institutional clients.”

Gebhardt added that Johnson Controls might compile data from meteorological towers that are already up in the Hilltowns, but will probably not build one of its own due to the cost of construction.

Another district resident, Scott Green, asked that the board look to other competitors before signing a contract with Johnson Controls, to ensure that district residents get the best that the industry has to offer. The only other company to respond to district’s request for proposal (RFP) was Honeywell.

“They’re both very similar as far as how much the district would save,” said Holmes of the proposals from Johnson Controls and Honeywell. “The main difference was the windmill; when you factor in the windmill, the money that would come to the district is significant.”

The viability of this plan will be discussed further at future meetings before a contract is signed, and is on the agenda for the Monday, June 15 school board meeting.

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