Green goes to school
District poised to cut energy costs with environmental measures
On a Friday morning earlier this month, six men gathered in Jerry Matranga's office at the Palo Alto school district's Churchill Avenue headquarters. They dressed for comfort, one in cutoff jean shorts and a T-shirt. Only one wore a tie.
Even so early in the day, the room was muggy without the coolness of air conditioning -- which was appropriate: They gathered to talk about saving the Palo Alto Unified School District money, not through layoffs or program cutbacks, but through energy conservation.
As the district's associate superintendent of business services, Matranga was the only administrator in the room. He has recruited the people who operate the district's buildings on a daily basis, those in the maintenance and operations department, for his green-building and energy-savings crusade.
And they all favor the concept.
"We're not building a whole bunch of new buildings. If we were, it would be a lot easier because then you can control where you place them and how you face them," Matranga said. "We're trying to balance the temperatures, air qualities and lighting to support excellent learning environments, which are non-negotiable. That's where we're trying to forge ahead."
In the face of soaring energy costs, more and more districts across the states with aging buildings are looking toward natural resources to keep their budgets balanced. But, as a group of Palo Alto community members known as the Sustainable Schools Committee can attest, the concept of green schools is still a tough sell. The equipment to harness natural energy -- solar panels and heavy insulation, for example -- is expensive to install and the payoff is long to come.
"It's like a gardener's perspective: You plant something, but you won't see the results immediately," said Ted Mendoza, a district energy consultant.
But, the Palo Alto district's energy bill is already $2.1 million a year, and Matranga and his team say their plan to implement energy saving methods that are compatible with existing buildings is the best answer. They have also become the district's in-house advocates for green thinking.
Six years ago, the Palo Alto district contracted with San Jose-based Salas O'Brien Engineers, Inc. to replace a faulty chill-water tank at Palo Alto High School. The company suggested the district buy a new tank that used more energy, but would save about a million gallons of water a year.
"We step back, and take a holistic approach," said Mendoza, the company's associate vice president.
The district wanted to hear more and hired Mendoza's staff to conduct an energy audit of Paly. The audit revealed that none of Paly's portable buildings were linked to the district's energy management system, a central computer program that regulates the heating and cooling in buildings, which was likely causing unnecessary costs. The air conditioning in a portable, or relocatable, for example, could be running at full speed at night or in the summer months and no one would have known.
Again, the district wanted to know more, and Salas O'Brien conducted more audits of more schools. The consultants found that only 45 percent to 60 percent of the district's buildings were linked to the energy management system. Mendoza said it was a "skeleton version" of an EMS.
The district hired Salas O'Brien to expand its EMS to 16 schools, and the consultant estimated the savings would be about $130,000 a year.
About 90 to 95 percent of the district's buildings are now in sync with the improved EMS. The City of Palo Alto Utilities has estimated a 5 percent decrease in energy consumption from 2002 to 2005 districtwide. In that same time period, however, energy rates have risen 11 percent, Mendoza said, but the district's energy bills have not risen with them.
Luis Zepeda, the district's maintenance supervisor of 24 years, said the new system has made a world of difference.
"I have seen how we used to run our equipment, it was just horrible," he said. "We used to have time clocks or we would have a custodian come in and physically flip the switch."
Of course, the new system will not run itself. Matranga has so far had eight district employees, including Zepeda and the district's electrician Koli Besch, obtain Pacific Gas and Electric's Building Operator Certification through a six-month course. Zepeda said they are taught about all things green.
The new energy management system is the cornerstone of the district's master plan for energy conservation. This fall, Matranga and his team, along with the Sustainable Schools Committee and the school board, will roll the other project recommendations from Salas O'Brien into a 20-year master facilities plan. (See sidebar: In the works.)
Matranga will hold a forum Sept. 29 so those involved can prioritize the projects. Salas O'Brien is also conducting a second round of audits on some schools to look into how to save more energy.
"We've done the 30,000-foot look, now we want to explore more alternative technology, more sophisticated projects," Mendoza said.
Like school buildings everywhere, the Palo Alto school district's facilities were not built with energy conservation in mind. It "wasn't even a consideration then," said Walt Hays, president of the Sustainable Schools Committee.
The majority of the buildings are decades old. The sheer size of the school district, which has 12 elementary schools, three middle schools, two high schools, a district office and an adult school, makes for large utilities bills.
One building in particular is a throbbing red eyesore in a green building plan.
The science building at Barron Park Elementary School, which is the science resource center for all the district's elementary teachers, is "decrepit," said Matranga.
The building currently houses all the equipment, experiment tools and animals that go out to elementary classrooms. Teachers and administrators also visit the center to see what students are learning.
Matranga's team plans to move the elementary science resource center into an existing building at Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School next year. But, they want the facility to be a true green building by adding solar panels, double-paned windows and an energy efficient roof, among other green measures.
"What it is, is the wave of the future, but the wave is not here yet. We're looking for a green building standard," said Chuck McDonnell, the district's supervisor of operations.
But, Matranga estimates it will cost $70,000 to green the building.
"That's the cost of adding things like this in a school district because it's just not done in a school district because the payback is too long," Matranga said.
It is why Matranga has started his conservation efforts slowly. Besides the EMS project, the team's other efforts have been "low hanging fruits," said Mendoza.
One classroom at Jordan Middle School, for example, was heating up in the sun, and maintenance staff installed awnings to cool the room and reduce the use of air conditioning. Water-efficient toilets have been installed districtwide, as well as motion sensors in all the classrooms to help regulate lighting.
The district has also already switched out most of the energy guzzling lighting fixtures and replaced them with greener models. The Paly library, for example, used to run 48 lighting fixtures and now there are about half that amount.
The other major component to the team's plan is, as Zepeda says, "the people factor." For many of the green projects to work, there has to be buy-in from the principals, teachers and students.
Matranga started work in this area last year, and has so far seen success with the help of administrators and teachers at Gunn High School and El Carmelo and Escondido elementary schools.
He told those schools that if they could launch an energy conservation plan involving students and actually cut back on the sites' energy consumptions, they could keep half of the savings.
El Carmelo and Escondido launched "Energy Patrols," in which interested students wore vests, carried walkie-talkies and patrolled the school for classrooms where lights were left on and doors were left open with air conditioners running.
Gunn started a waste-management program.
As of mid-June, the elementary schools were posed to receive about $1,000 each and Gunn about $8,000.
"Now they're interested in energy conservation, and they didn't even know it," Mendoza said.
This school year, which began Monday, Paly and Ohlone and Walter Hays elementary schools will join the program.
Matranga will let the other schools join at their own paces. Adding energy conservation to the long list of requirements principals and teachers work under already is a tall order.
After all, it's difficult to convince teachers to run their classroom air conditioners at 78 degrees on a hot day when the kids are uncomfortable. And many teachers run small refrigerators in their classrooms out of necessity.
"We're already on the cutting edge," Zepeda said. "But, it's the comfort level vs. the energy conservation factor."
Zepeda said he and other maintenance staff are visiting each site to talk to the school communities about their projects and energy conservation.
The new plan comes on the heels of a contentious battle between Matranga's predecessor and members of the Sustainable Schools Committee, who pitched a wide array of ambitious green building ideas to the district a few years ago, but were passed over because of the high costs.
Committee members had seen a window of opportunity for their green ideas, as many of the district's schools were undergoing massive renovation projects in the bond-funded Building for Excellence program, also called B4E.
They foresaw solar panels on the roofs of every school, heavily insulated walls and cement flooring in the classrooms, to name just a few of their ideas. They had worked very closely with the district's former associate superintendent Bob Golton and were giddy at the potential cost savings. But, none of their plans came to fruition.
"A lot of these things cost money upfront and save you money in the long run," Hays said. "Of course by this time, most of the B4E was over. The committee was very frustrated."
With Matranga -- who took over for Golton when he retired in early 2005 -- now at the helm, committee members are feeling optimistic once again. They started the year off right, with the launching of a 20-kilowat photovoltaic system at Escondido in February.
That system, because of incentive-program rebates and community donations, didn't cost the district a dime. It is also expected to save Escondido about $6,000 a year in energy costs.
But, there are an endless number of green methods to implement, said Hays. If the district was starting from scratch, the buildings would be constructed to harness the sun's energy for cooling and heating, which is called passive solar; the walls would be heavily insulated to keep cool air in and hot air out during the summer and vice versa in the winter; and the roofs would, of course, have solar panels.
Cutting back on the central air system use has another benefit besides smaller energy bills.
"It's been proven that if you have buildings where you can open the windows, people's productivity goes up because it's so pleasant," said Hays, adding, "We're going to push for as much green stuff as we can. Once you begin to realize how much energy schools use... There are a lot of things we could tweak."
Talk about green schools in Palo Alto on Town Square. To start a conversation, just pots a topic at Palo Alto Online, www.PaloAltoOnline.com.
Staff Writer Alexandria Rocha can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.