Energy Efficiency: Grants available to reduce consumption

(from Maine Townsman, March 2006)
By Douglas Rooks, Freelance Writer

When the ballasts on the South Portland Library’s fluorescent light fixtures began exploding, Librarian Marion Peterson knew she had to do something – quickly. “There wasn’t any fire danger, apparently, but there was lots of acrid smoke. It really scared people,” she said.

The library’s lighting was inadequate in many other ways. The book stacks were arranged perpendicular to the lighting banks, and there were places “where there were no lights at all. You really couldn’t see at night.”

She began working with two engineers on new lighting schemes, and along the way discovered how energy efficiency could fit into the designs. The library’s $60,000 lighting project was eligible for $4,000 in rebates from the Efficiency Maine program, the state’s ratepayer-funded conservation effort that is now administered by the Maine Public Utilities Commission.

South Portland’s retrofit is one of a growing number of municipal projects that’s received funding during the four years since Efficiency Maine was expanded to include the public sector.

And while most towns and cities may not have the spectacular evidence of need that South Portland did, just about every municipality can benefit from efficiency initiatives, according to Denis Bergeron, director of energy projects for the PUC.

Town and city officials tell much the same story. The recent run-up of fuel and electricity prices may be putting more pressure on municipal budgets than anything besides health insurance. And with many towns laboring to meeting the budget limitations mandated by LD 1, savings anywhere they can be found are particularly valuable.

Jim Everett, the physical plant manager for Fort Fairfield’s schools, was attending a building code compliance workshop in 2002 when he first heard about Efficiency Maine’s programs. “I figured we should apply, since we’d been talking about new fixtures and a complete retrofit of the elementary school,” he said.

Fort Fairfield, though organized as SAD 20, serves only the students within the town’s borders. It has a K-5 elementary school and a 6-12 middle-high school, with a total of about 650 students.

Everett asked about whether Fort Fairfield would qualify for rebates, but was told the program was only for small businesses. “A few months later they came back and told me we, ‘You got your wish. They decided you’re eligible.’ ” Fort Fairfield’s project thus began what has since become a growing influx of public buildings into the program.

Fort Fairfield had renovated its high school in 1998, adding 8,000 square feet to a 74,000 square foot building and moving in the superintendent’s office that had previously been housed in rented space. Everett was well aware that the new building was more energy efficient than the older elementary school. Despite the larger space to heat, fuel oil consumption at the high school had declined from about 40,000 gallons a year to 34,000.

He began looking for opportunities to upgrade the elementary school’s systems, and found them in a series of changes around the school. Some of it comes from brighter, more efficient fluorescent fixtures, which are particularly important in large areas like gyms. Some derives from more sophisticated controls – variable speed motors in the heat exchangers in high school, and “occupancy sensors,” which turn off lights when it detects no movement in a room for a designated period.

As a plant manager, he’s particularly happy about the latter innovation. “It used to be you’d drive by the school at 10 o’clock at night, and say, ‘Somebody left the gym lights on again.’ Now, that doesn’t happen.”

The sensors are also useful in the exercise rooms, locker rooms, and public bathrooms. “Nobody ever checks them to see if the lights are still on at the end of the day,” he said.

Attention to detail is important, Everett believes. He’s worked for the school district for 20 years, and was a farmer before that. Asked about conserving energy for computers, he reports that the computer technician has programmed all the PCs in the building to shut down at 5 p.m. each day. “You can turn them on again after that if you need to. But that way we know we won’t have most machines running overnight.”

Everett also has some precise numbers about before-and-after electricity consumption in the elementary school. Before the changes were made, the elementary school logged 367,269 kilowatt hours of use. Afterward, consumption was reduced to 318,240, a saving of 49,029 kwh, or 13.3 percent.

New technology is important, but Everett has found that it isn’t foolproof. “You have to do maintenance to make sure everything is still working right. We’re always trying to stay on top of it.”

The total cost of the retrofit was about $35,000, and the Efficiency Maine rebates totaled $13,000. The high proportion of state funding was possible because Fort Fairfield had the services of a volunteer electrician, who checked the work of school staff and helped design the project.

Keeping the water flowing

Electricity-intensive systems are familiar in large industrial plants, but they exist in a large number of municipal facilities, as well.

The Bath Water District was looking for ways to cut costs and conserve electricity, which, according to Superintendent Trevor Hunt, is one of the district’s three largest expenses, along with labor and chemicals. The Bath system, which draws surface water from Nequasset Lake in Woolwich, involves pumping at almost every stage, unlike some systems which have gravity feeds between the water source and the treatment plant.

There are large and powerful pumps to bring the water in, drive it through the filters, and then pump it out to customers in Bath, Woolwich, West Bath, parts of Brunswick, Edgecomb and Wiscasset. (Wiscasset is not actually part of the district, but it buys all its water from Bath to distribute to its own customers.)

The water district bought variable frequency drives, with help from Efficiency Maine, to make the pumps operate more effectively.

“It used to be the pump was either on or off. Now we can have one operating at 100 percent, and another at 25 percent, and they can switch pressure quickly to adjust for changes in the treatment cycle,” Hunt said.

In addition to the savings in electricity, which were projected at 10 percent, the variable drives make the plant work better. “Chemical treatment works better when you’re able to keep all the systems stable. This helps us produce a better, more reliable product for our customers,” Hunt said.

Although he has little doubt that the savings were as advertised, since the drives went on line two years ago, he hasn’t evaluated before and after numbers. “We’re just too busy keeping everything operating smoothly,” he said. There are also seasonal variations for the water district that would make calculations necessary over several years to fully evaluate the results, he said. Bath Iron Works often uses huge amounts of water in the winter, since it needs to keep its outdoor work from freezeups by applying large amounts of running water.

The Old Town Water District has also taken advantage of the Efficiency Maine program, although it, like South Portland and Fort Fairfield, has concentrated on retrofitting lighting in its treatment plant, equipment garage and office, according to Superintendent Wes Haskell. He heard about this particular opportunity from a commercial electrician who was working on a building nearby.

“He had all the facts, and even the application for the rebates,” Haskell said. In all, the district replaced 147 fluorescent fixtures, generally replacing 40 watt bulbs with 32 watt fixtures. The new lights cost $5,880, the rebate was $2,205, so the net cost was $3,675. He figures that amount will be paid back through reduced electricity bills within two or three years, with annual reductions in usage of about 20 percent.

There was some concern, particularly in the office, that the new fixtures wouldn’t be as bright as the old bulbs. “They’re brighter, and the light is more attractive,” Haskell said. “It really worked out even better than we expected.”

Municipalities Welcome

Denis Bergeron at the PUC said that the small business program of Efficiency Maine is limited to firms with 50 employees or less, but the program is more flexible when it comes to municipal applicants. Generally, funding is available for most electric-intensive projects that a municipal department or school might be carrying out.

Some of the biggest opportunities do come when a new building is being designed. Efficiency Maine is consulting with Freeport on how to maximize conservation opportunities at the new Freeport Community Center. But it also supports retrofits for existing buildings, particularly older ones where lighting is outdated, system controls are rudimentary, and motors and fans can benefit from new technology. In addition to the projects detailed here, the program has supported work for the Caribou School Department, Mount Merici Academy in Waterville, and the civic center in Lewiston.

There’s plenty of room for more participation, Bergeron said. Workshops and conferences have begun to spread the word, and he hopes more towns and cities will take advantage not only of the rebates, but the technical assistance Efficiency Maine also offers in designing better-functioning buildings.

One such workshop series was held earlier this month at community college campuses in Presque Isle, Bangor, South Portland, Auburn, and Calais. It focused on compliance with new energy codes, and covered standards for insulation, vapor barriers, foundation insulation and frost, radon gas, and other topics.

Benefits Beyond Efficiency

At the South Portland library, Marian Peterson confirms that the Efficiency Maine program does what it says it will. “They sent inspectors to make sure that we were doing it right, and doing what we said we would. They were very knowledgeable, and helpful with our questions about how the new systems work.”

Peterson doesn’t see the library’s electric bills, which go directly to city hall for payment, but she says there’s no doubt that the new lighting is more efficient than the old. “It isn’t just electricity, too. The old lights gave off a lot more heat, and that increased our cooling bills in the summer,” she said.

But as a librarian, what she real appreciates are the other benefits the new system has provided, beyond efficiency and conservation.

“We spent a lot of time on lighting colors, making sure the new ones would be both warm and bright. You can really see the difference it’s made when our patrons come in. When people sit down to read the paper now, they’re not squinting and struggling to see the type. It’s very pleasant in the reading room, and the light is easy on the eyes.” And, of course, the new fixtures don’t explode.

Peterson said that new systems are not the whole answer. She reminds her staff to be judicious in how much lighting is used at any given time. “When we come into a room, we tend to turn on the light, whether we actually need it or not,“ she said.

She considered occupancy sensors like those installed in Fort Fairfield for the (book) stacks, where use is occasional, but decided they would be too expensive for this particular project.

She said that the mammoth new Osher Library at the University of Southern Maine, which at eight stories is the tallest building on campus, does have such sensors. “It may be that they’ll be cost-effective for us sometime in the future, too,” she said.

(More information about Efficiency Maine programs can be found on the website: or by calling the PUC at 287-3831)