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Study finds Fairbanks schools much more energy efficient than Anchorage's

Suzanna Caldwell
Loren Holmes photo

The rivalry between Anchorage and Fairbanks -- Alaska's two largest cities -- is a fierce one. Which community has the most culture, which has the better university and which has the superior athletic squads are all debates that have raged since statehood.

But an October report from the Alaska Housing Finance Corp. clearly shows one area in which Fairbanks beats Anchorage: Heating efficiency in public buildings.

While that may not be a charming title, it's one that could reap benefits for years as heat and electricity prices rise in Southcentral and Interior Alaska.

A White Paper on Energy Use in Alaska's Public Facilities,” known colloquially as the “White Paper,” was a project of the Alaska Housing Finance Corp. funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The White Paper is considered the first major look at energy use in Alaska public buildings.

$13.7 million to heat, power Anchorage schools

Because schools make up 58 percent of all public buildings in Alaska, they get considerable attention. One notable finding is that Anchorage schools use twice as much energy per square foot as Fairbanks schools.

But there's a bit of an asterisk beside that statement. Of the 327 buildings audited for the report, 17 were from the Anchorage School District (ASD) and 28 were from the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District. That's about 25 percent of all Anchorage schools, 75 percent of all Fairbanks schools.

Mike Abbott, ASD chief financial officer, said the district has been working toward more energy-saving practices since 2007. ASD has saved thousands of dollars by doing simple things like unplugging unused electronics and turning off lights in unused spaces.

All together, the Anchorage district spent $13.7 million heating and powering its 100 buildings. Even though energy in the district use dropped, according to Abbott, the price increased as utility costs continued to climb. But, he noted, the 20 most energy-efficient Anchorage schools saved a combined $320,000 last year.

Heating oil pinch in Fairbanks

Fairbanks has felt that price crunch for a while. Most Fairbanks buildings are heated with expensive heating oil, which costs $3-$4 per gallon. In Anchorage, buildings are heated with Cook Inlet natural gas, a much more affordable fuel at about $6 per thousand cubic feet.

The report concludes that there are about 5,000 publicly owned buildings in Alaska and estimates $641 million a year is spent heating those buildings. An average projected savings of $25,000 per building could save taxpayers $125 million a year.

While many local governments track their energy use, it was difficult to get a sense of whether those buildings are efficient or not, according to Nathan Wiltse, a building energy economist and project manager with the Cold Climate Housing Research Center in Fairbanks. Differences in climate, heating costs and types of heat made it hard to measure buildings side by side.

Wiltse helped with analysis and data acquisition, creating a baseline calculation for the buildings based on energy audits.  

“Many building managers feel they're doing the best they can operating under the absence of reasonable information,” Wiltse said. “We want to provide something people can look at and see how they are doing.”

The idea is to start a dialogue -- not to attack any type of building or school.

“That's counterproductive,” he said. “We want people to be informed by it and take the next step. They won't do that if on they're on the defensive.”

Significant savings

Even if the paper isn't intended to stir rivalries, Larry Morris, project manager of the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District facilities maintenance department, can't help but feel a little pride. Does it feel good to know his school buildings are more efficient than Anchorage’s?

“Oh, of course,” Morris said.

Morris might be a humble bragger, but his savings for the school district are worth a boast. Take, for example, the Facilities Maintenance Building in the Fairbanks district. Between 2008 and 2009 the district spent $800,000 on renovations that included replacing the roof and siding. About a quarter of the cost went toward extra insulation.

The savings? Morris said the building went from using 27,400 gallons of heating oil a year to 7,500 – a 73 percent reduction. The cost savings? With fuel running about $4 per gallon, a jaw-dropping $70,000 to $80,000 a year.

Heating oil price up 277 percent

Morris expects the Barnette Magnet School, which was built in two parts during the 1960s and '70s and is one of the district's oldest schools, to realize extreme energy savings once it finishes renovations on the building, which is in stage three of a four-phase project. Morris called the school one of the district's “worst performing” in terms of energy efficiency.

Many schools in the district were built during the oil boom of the 1980s when fuel prices were more reasonable.

But in the last decade, that’s changed dramatically. The White Paper notes that in 2004, Fairbanks heating oil cost $1.42 per gallon. Since then, prices have jumped 277 percent to $3.93 per gallon in 2012.

Morris said those 30-to-40-year-old schools in need of “refreshing” get efficiency upgrades in the process. Those upgrades include new insulation, energy efficient lighting and heat recovery systems. Morris is even testing a pilot solar panel project at the facilities building. The project, which feeds directly into the electrical grid, cost about $40,000 to install in 2009. Since then, the district has gotten back about $3,000 a year from Golden Valley Electric Association.

Morris would like to see a faster return, but as technology improves it’ll be something he'll consider for future cost savings.

“The industry is maturing, and so we get more efficient panels and lower costs,” he said. “What wouldn't have been a good cost-to- benefit ratio is slowly making its way there.”

According to Morris, the district spends $9 million a year on heat and electricity for its 34 buildings, which includes 30 schools.

Moving forward

Wiltse of the Cold Climate Housing Research Center said the report is a preliminary analysis of the public energy situation in Alaska. The center and others are in the process of collecting more data.

Rural Alaska, in particular, may be a place where savings can be realized. While Fairbanks school savings are a result of high energy costs, the report found that isn't always the case statewide.

One White Paper conclusion is that buildings in areas with higher energy prices don't necessarily use less fuel. Therefore, the paper notes, it's reasonable to believe that energy-efficiency programs could lower costs.

Wiltse said while experienced people operate facilities in rural Alaska, there aren't “enough of them to go around.”

That coupled with difficulties in getting parts and supplies can make energy efficiency in rural Alaska a challenge.

Still, Wiltse said, the paper will be a useful reference in helping facilities apply for grants and other funding.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com