Opinion

Energy efficiency can save Vashon schools a bundle

Remember the good old days, just a year or two ago, when $20 would fill up your car’s gas tank? Remember when the gas pumps at Engels could keep track of the cost of gas? Remember when buying heating oil didn’t require a second mortgage? Who thinks our natural gas or electric rates are going down? Our school district is facing these same dilemmas.

Data I received from our school board shows the high school’s utility/energy bill (electric/gas/water/sewer) is about $185,000 per year.

We can only guess how much these bills will continue to rise.

Other school districts across the country and around the world — in Minnesota, Germany, Maryland, Oregon and Bainbridge Island — understood this dynamic escalating cost and designed new school buildings to minimize the impact of rising utility bills.

In the cold winter climate of Bimidji, Minn., a school building was designed to the German standard Passive House (Passivhaus in German).

This particular school building uses about 10 percent as much energy for heating and cooling as a comparable sized school building.

There are many examples of schools in Germany and Austria built to this standard. I recently attended a lecture by the architect of one of these schools.

See examples of German schools built to this rigorous design standard at www.passivhaus.org.uk.

In Maryland, where winters are

colder than on Vashon and summers are scorching, newly constructed Great Seneca Creek Elementary School lowered utility costs to $1.17 per square foot, compared to $1.90 per square foot for the other schools in its district — a savings of $61,491 per year.

At the University of Oregon in Eugene, through coordinated architectural and engineering design, the Lillis Building housing the School of Business uses less than half the energy of a comparably sized “built to code” building.

And on Bainbridge Island, a Seattle firm, Mithun, designed an extremely low-energy use school building, IslandWood. Mithun is the company that also designed the REI flagship store in Seattle.

The energy bill for our existing high school is $185,000, compared to $18,500 for a comparably sized school built to the PassivHaus standard. See what happens when the cost of energy rises?

The gap grows, between what we pay, and what we could pay, as the cost of energy rises 10 percent ($203,500 versus $20,350), 50 percent ($277,500 versus 27,750) or doubles ($370,000 versus $37,000). Although the percentage increases are just guesses, remember, just a year or two ago, gas was $1.50 a gallon.

What steps could we take? Our existing high school is costing a lot of money out of the Vashon Island School District general fund just to keep it occupied — $185,000 each year. This is the same general fund that pays for educating our children through teacher salaries, textbooks and curriculum.

If we, as a community, decide to construct new high school buildings, then we should follow the lead of other school districts around the world, and create a campus that keeps our operating costs, now and in the future, as low as possible, enabling us to devote as much of the school district budget as possible to education, not utility companies.

— Islander Richard Krug is an energy auditor for the city of Seattle’s Office of Housing.

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