Minnesota, ready to upgrade energy-hog buildings, awaits word on stimulus funds

Erik Ennen and Mark Francis
MinnPost photo by Sharon Schmickle
Erik Ennen, left, and Mark Francis from the Center for Energy and Environment helped the Shoreview library upgrade its lighting.

Forget lipstick on pigs.

This year’s porcine-related obsession is the energy hog. And with a veritable barnyard full of energy-hog buildings, Minnesota is waiting for word from Washington about funding for efficiency upgrades in the massive federal stimulus bill.

Like most people, I imagined highways and bridges when I heard about plans to create jobs by investing in infrastructure. Funding for them, of course, is part of the stimulus package.

But I should have known from President Barack Obama’s campaign pledges that the definition of infrastructure would be more expansive — and green. How about aged fluorescent lamps in libraries? Single-pane windows in schools?

Candidate Obama pledged to increase the energy efficiency in our existing buildings — schools, public buildings, homes and offices — by 25 percent over the next decade. Republicans, who called for meeting the nation’s energy needs with nuclear power plants and offshore drilling, ridiculed Obama’s less flashy ideas for conservation.

But Obama stuck to his argument that small energy savings could add up to major energy security gains, less greenhouse gas emissions, big paybacks on utility bills — and jobs, too.

Now, President Obama has the stage set to roll his plan into motion if billions of dollars in energy-conservation funding survive the rough and tumble of negotiations to reconcile the House and Senate (PDF) versions of the bill.

From small country schools to the halls of the state Capitol, Minnesota has prepared for this moment by assessing public buildings, tagging the energy hogs and setting priorities for upgrades.

Almost 500 public buildings in Minnesota consume more energy than they should, according to the state Commerce Department’s Energy Information Center. Of that group, 109 are real energy hogs, and the taxpayers could save more than $50,000 per building if they got efficiency upgrades.

The stimulus bills also contain tax credits for upgrading homes and other private buildings. And the state expects major funding increases for weatherizing the homes of families that qualify for low-income heating assistance.

Superintendents calling daily  
“We are ready,” said Charlie Kyte, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators. “We could put a lot of energy projects on the ground very quickly if we got the go-ahead.”

Even before Obama set a priority on energy conservation, Minnesota school districts were conducting energy audits of their buildings and pricing out the needed upgrades to their lighting, windows, boilers and other components. Ninety districts have identified needs for energy-conservation projects worth about $500 million in all, Kyte said.

“Superintendents are calling me daily to ask if there is energy money and construction money in the bill,” he said.

He can’t answer the questions with any certainty this week. The Senate has been less inclined than the House to spend federal money on school buildings. But bills from both houses include billions for overall energy conservation in public buildings. How much would be available for schools “goes back and forth,” Kyte said.

Green jobs
A commentator on CNN last week listed government-building renovations among the dubious job-creating investments in the House version of the bill. He should have talked with state Rep. Jeremy Kalin, DFL-North Branch, who co-chairs the Minnesota Green Jobs Task Force.

“Shovel-ready” is the buzz-word for infrastructure projects that have the best shot at stimulus funding because they could put people to work in a hurry. Kalin talks instead about “tool-belt ready” projects. He has studied their job-creating potential in connection with legislation he is pushing for a state initiative that also could make energy-conservation funds available for Minnesota buildings.

“Two hundred electricians could be put to work in Minnesota immediately upgrading electricity in our public buildings,” Kalin said.

“Lighting would give us the best bang for the short-term buck,” he said. “And these projects are ready to go … engineered and designed.”

Within three months, hundreds of carpenters could be installing energy-efficient windows and doors. Within six months, plumbers, pipefitters, sheet-metal workers and others could be replacing boilers and other components of heating, ventilating and air-conditioning systems, Kalin said.

Kyte at the Association of School Administrators said the people working screwdrivers and hammers on job sites are only a fraction of those involved in energy-efficiency projects.

“First the stuff has to be manufactured,” he said. “If I had my magic wand, I’d like to see it manufactured in Minnesota. … It also has to be designed and engineered, and that puts architects and engineers to work. Our architectural and engineering firms are just hungry for work. About 20 engineering firms that serve Minnesota schools are looking for work right now.”

The Shoreview library
Minnesota already was moving toward energy upgrades in its public buildings through several state and local programs. Some of the work is funded under a state law that requires energy utilities to dedicate a portion of their revenues to projects that reduce consumption of electricity and natural gas.

The Ramsey County Library in Shoreview recently took advantage of a county government initiative to upgrade its lighting.

Most of us don’t think when we walk into a school or a library how many light fixtures we see. The number is mind-boggling. The Shoreview library, a modest two-story building, has hundreds of fluorescent lamps and recessed lights in the vaulted wooden ceiling of the main floor and the downstairs offices.

Over the years since it opened in 1991, the library had replaced and upgraded lights. But when the county called for an expert assessment last year by Erik Ennen of the Center for Energy and Environment, he found lights that had faded but still guzzled power and lights that were holdovers from an earlier generation. By installing new, more efficient lights, the library was able to cut the wattage per light from 32 to 25 and still get the glow it wanted.

The project cost $20,829. The government initiative kicked in $7,042. Ennen estimates the library will save $4,072 a year in electric bills, recovering its share of the cost in less than three and a half years.

Loaded for bear
Julie Neville, the building services manager, said the lighting also seems more soft and soothing.

“People aren’t as angry,” she said.

Julie Neville
MinnPost photo by Sharon Schmickle
Shoreview Library building services manager Julie Neville

Anger in the library? Oh yes indeed, she said. “People will come to the desk about a 10 cent fine, and they will be loaded for bear,” she said. There is no scientific study, but the staff thinks softer lighting quieted the growling.

Ennen estimates the project provided a week’s worth of work for two electricians and also business for suppliers and truck drivers who hauled the old lights out and the new equipment in.

Modest as a job creator, yes. But it represents only one piece of the lowest-hanging fruit in energy-efficiency upgrades, he said.

Start replacing windows, ventilation systems and boilers and you need more trucks and many more workers representing a wealth of trades and skills. Some large-building owners also are hiring teams of testers and other experts to “recommisson” their energy and ventilation systems, which involves making sure they are getting the optimum return for their energy dollar.    

The Shoreview library is but one of many projects showing that Minnesota was moving on its own to fix its energy-hog buildings.

But agencies still lack the up-front cash to tackle big projects, said Kyte at the Association of School Administrators.

“If there is a project that pays back the investment in three years, schools will do it on their own,” he said. “But if it’s seven or eight years, they hesitate.”

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