The second-largest school system in West Virginia has converted approximately one-fifth of the heating and cooling systems in its district to geothermal power, making it a leader in alternative energy in a state known for its once-booming coal industry.

Seven schools in Berkeley County are now powered geothermally, and are part of Superintendent Manny Arvon’s effort to make the entire school system more energy efficient and green.

Since the launch of the initiative, nearly $2 million in energy costs have been saved.

The Road to Efficiency

Jeremy Smith, of Louisville based CMTA Consulting Engineers, explained that representatives from the school system attended several conferences in 2011 dealing with net-zero energy schools—those which produce as much energy onsite as they consume. In addition to the conferences, officials from Berkeley County visited the nation’s first net-zero energy school, located in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

Smith said the school system entered into an agreement with CMTA, after a request for proposal was issued in partnership with the West Virginia School Building Authority, on October of 2015. Since no new schools were slated for construction, a conversation was started about how to make existing schools more energy efficient.

The decision was made to convert seven schools to geothermal energy users over the course of two years.

“These seven schools were very much at the end of their lives with their [then] current energy systems,” said Smith, adding they had “big energy bills.”

In 2016, Mill Creek Intermediate School, Opequon Elementary School, and Valley View Elementary School all converted to geothermal energy systems. 2017 saw the renovation of four more schools: Berkeley Heights, Tuscarora, Rosemont, and Gerrardstown Elementary Schools.

Smith also noted that work was done in every school in the district—not just the seven that had their heating and cooling systems replaced—as well as three other buildings in use by the school system.

“We did major work in all thirty-five buildings,” he said.

This work included replacing 23,546 lightbulbs with LED lights, installing new boilers and chillers in four schools, insulation improvements, weather stripping, and new HVAC control systems.

Major Financial Savings

Since the completion of the renovations and upgrades to each school, Berkeley County has saved $1,949,284 in energy costs.

Smith noted that CMTA guaranteed the school system would see a neutral cash flow or a positive return on the investment. Thus, the money the schools typically spent on energy bills for the year was either the same as the cost to replace the existing energy systems or more expensive than the improvements.

According to Smith, the savings have so far reached $930,000 in excess of the projected cost for producing energy with the prior systems.

He said one of the ongoing conversations between the school system and CMTA is the possibility of investing the excess savings into further energy efficiency renovations in other schools within the county. No decisions have yet been made, but it’s “under consideration.”

Positive Effects for Students and Staff

Smith explained that the school system would see many positive results from the conversion, aside from the financial savings.

“Many of the old systems were really noisy,” he said, also underscoring that air quality was an issue.

Since geothermal energy usage was implemented, Smith said testing for noise, air quality, and quality of lighting have all demonstrated an overall improvement. His assertions were universally supported by principals of the updated schools.

“The improvements to the lighting have brightened the classrooms and hallways, adding to the learning environment,” said Beth McCoy, principal of Mill Creek Intermediate School.

“My teachers love it,” said Tyler Long, principal of Tuscarora Elementary School. “The renovation this summer was painless and, honestly, exciting. It took a forty-one-year-old building and made it into a brand-new school. We received new doors, walls, and the ceiling was dropped by two and a half feet in the hallways.”

Long added that the new system is quiet and very easy to maintain.

Principal Tana Burkhart, of Opequon Elementary School, concurred with her colleagues and sang the praises of the staff from CMTA, calling them “pleasant, open minded, and knowledgeable.”

Also, Valley View Elementary’s Brent Sherrard credited the new system with providing a “consistent and comfortable” temperature for students and staff, which wasn’t always the case prior to the upgrade.

Geothermal Energy 101

Used widely around the western part of the United States, geothermal energy literally means heat energy from the earth.

According to the United States Department of Energy’s (DOE) website, geothermal energy is harnessed by digging “mile-or-more-deep wells … into underground reservoirs to tap steam and very hot water that can be brought to the surface for use in a variety of applications, including electricity generation and heating and cooling.”

(It should be noted that BC Schools did not need to dig to such depths, but rather utilized more shallow depths, where more constant, warmer temps could be accessed, and then used to enhance existing temperatures above ground—saving energy and money by shrinking the gap between actual and desired temperatures with much greater efficiency.)

Aside from cost-saving measures, the DOE reports geothermal energy emits “no greenhouse gases,” provided that all operations are “modern and closed-looped,” and that emissions are “six to twenty times lower” than the burning of natural gas.

Additionally, the footprint for geothermal energy production is significantly smaller than more traditional energy production methods and, given proper management of the tapped water sources, the extraction of the energy from the hot water and steam can be balanced with the natural recharge rate of the source.

The Future for West Virginia Schools?

Jeremy Smith indicated CMTA is currently working with Morgan County to assess their energy usage and to come up with energy-saving mechanisms. No plans for a conversion to geothermal energy production are yet in the works for Morgan County.

CMTA also worked with Raleigh County to create an energy savings plan.

The West Virginia Department of Education lists several other school systems that have converted to a geothermal plan. Select schools in Webster, Pocahontas, and Monongalia Counties are all using the technology.

A worthwhile question emerges: while solar and wind power are often discussed as future sources of energy to replace West Virginia’s flagging coal industry—with the natural gas industry quickly making inroads—might geothermal energy also be a viable source of clean, efficient energy, at least for school districts in the state?

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