Kent County pursues diligent energy-cutting push

March 15, 2009
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So how much does it cost to heat, cool and light 1.3 million square feet of space for a year? How about gassing up and maintaining a fleet of 208 cars and trucks for 12 months?

For Kent County, the tab for both came to $17.7 million last year. The county spent $16 million on utility charges in 2008 for 33 buildings and nearly $1.7 million on fuel, oil and grease for its vehicles.

Still, that 2008 total was less than a 1 percent increase from two years earlier, and nearly 3.5 percent less than the $18.4 million spent in 2007. (See related chart.) The county plans on reducing utility charges even more this year when work on two new buildings will be completed.

A more energy-efficient Human Services Complex is scheduled to open in June on the southeast side of Grand Rapids and replace an aging and deteriorating structure that was too costly to operate. The 63rd District Courthouse will open later year with a thermal energy system that may save as much as $55,000 on the court’s current annual heating and cooling bill and will take the place of two locations.

The county, though, isn’t likely to reap large savings from the recent sale of its steam plant to Veolia Energy of Grand Rapids because the Department of Public Works, which owned the plant, billed the county for heating and cooling its downtown locations.

Kent County has been looking for ways to reduce energy costs the past few years, but really got serious last year when County Administer and Controller Daryl Delabbio created a work group in June. That group consisted of 13 employees from 10 departments; their mission was to make specific energy-savings recommendations that each one of the county’s 2,052 workers could take part in.

Late last month, that group presented county commissioners with a series of initiatives and goals to lower energy use, and the board responded by allocating $19,000 to get the first wave rolling. In return, Delabbio said doing the little things like installing programmable thermostats, mowing less often and teaching employees how to drive more fuel efficiently would cut waste, make for a cleaner environment, and save the county at least $200,000 this year.

“I think this is a great concept fiscally, and it shows the county is taking a leadership role in this,” said Commissioner Brandon Dillon.

“Some of these recommendations are already being utilized,” added Commissioner Dean Agee.

It may turn out that the county will cut nearly $410,000 in energy charges this year from cost savings and from not having to spend on related items. Tuning all the HVAC systems to the most efficient setting, for instance, has been estimated to cut costs by up to $360,500 in just a year’s time. The savings projected for 2010 are even higher at $637,300.

Deborah Kauffman, a management analyst with the county who served on the work group, said one reason the county took on this task was to get every employee on board with the program.

“The second thing is most of the programs we’ve done in the past have been capital programs, and these come through our CIP process. We found that there are other programs out there that don’t really rise to that level of funding and a lot of times are kind of falling off the radar screen,” said Kauffman.

“We need to find these quick-hit, low-cost programs and make sure these are getting funded because, basically, we’re spending this money whether we do this or not, and that is something that we need to understand. If you don’t do the project, you’re going to pay for the cost of the utility or the gasoline, anyway. So (the program) raises the whole level of awareness, I think, and brings it to the board’s attention,” she added.

Another reason for the new program is to create a centralized office where energy usage can be tracked and how it will be tracked. Kauffman said managers of each building record that use, but all the usage wasn’t recorded as a total in one location. With that in place, she said it will be easier for Delabbio to set a goal for energy reduction on an annual basis.

“So now we’ll have a target to work toward and a way to track whether or not we’re getting there,” she said.

Last year, it cost the county $12.35 a square foot to heat, cool and light its buildings. But this year, the county will begin to record that usage by units, too. The number of BTUs and heating-and–cooling degree days will be documented in addition to the costs per unit.

“If unit costs increase, the financial impact would be the avoided additional costs resulting from use reduction,” said Kauffman.

In the energy-reduction research that she did for the work group, Kauffman said what surprised her most was learning that the biggest savings came from the smallest things, and almost every one of those involved employees. Simple tasks like turning off lights when leaving a room and shutting down a computer at the end of a work day paid off tremendously because costs were cut without any investment being made. Those are the type of things Kauffman said the county feels it can painlessly and quickly accomplish with cooperation from employees, who she hopes incorporate the energy-saving ideas into their personal lives, as well.

“My goal this year — and, I think, the work group’s goal — is to get it going. Let’s do the things that are going to have high impact and that will turn around quickly. So that’s why we chose the ones that we did,” she said.

“If we can help them understand how important this is, and not just to the county but to them individually, and give them some skills that they can apply in their own lives to reduce use and save money, I really think that may have potential. So I’m going to be really interested to see how that plays out.”

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