August 3, 2010

School building renovation plan is questioned

City officials want more information before acting on a consultant's proposal for cutting utility costs.

By Kelley Bouchard kbouchard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — School and city officials have questions about a $6.9 million school renovation plan that could save nearly $450,000 in annual utility costs and pay for itself in about 15 years.

The proposal comes from Ameresco, a Massachusetts-based consulting firm that recently completed an energy audit of all city-owned buildings.

Ameresco has offered to oversee $12.8 million in renovations to city and school buildings that it claims would save nearly $1 million in annual energy costs and pay off the initial investment in about 13 years.

The proposed school renovations range from a $15,000 heating-control project at Presumpscot Elementary School that would save $8,800 per year and pay for itself in less than two years; to a $623,000 roof-replacement project at Lyseth Elementary School that would save $2,690 per year and which Ameresco says would pay for itself in about 232 years.

Jaimey Caron, chairman of the School Committee’s facilities subcommittee, said he wants to know how projects were included in the proposal and whether this is the best way to make capital improvements in Portland schools.

“Some projects included in this proposal don’t have a clear payback period,” Caron said. “While some projects appear to be more viable investments, there are some that you cannot justify solely on the basis of energy savings.”

The School Committee is scheduled to review the proposal on Wednesday in a workshop following its 7 p.m. business meeting in Room 250 at Casco Bay High School on Allen Avenue.

The finance subcommittee is expected to review the proposal later this month and forward it to the full committee, which will give its recommendation to the City Council.

School officials are developing a long-term, comprehensive plan to address building needs that have been put off for years.
Caron said he questions proposed improvements to buildings targeted to be replaced, namely Hall Elementary School and the district’s central kitchen in the former Reed Elementary School on Homestead Avenue.

Caron also questions whether this proposal is the most cost-effective way to replace old windows at Lyseth, Peaks Island and Presumpscot schools, or leaky roofs at Lyseth, Peaks Island and King Middle School.

Councilor John Anton supports Ameresco’s proposal, but he also has questions about the projects it includes.

“We have a broad array of capital needs in the city,” Anton said. “How do the proposed improvements fit into our overall capital improvement strategy?”

The city plans to borrow money for the renovations and pay off the 15-year loan with annual energy savings. Even after making annual loan payments, the city would net an additional savings of about $252,000 each year, according to an Ameresco report.

The federal government has given the city $684,000 for energy improvements. Some of the money will be used to pay consulting fees and the salary of Portland’s sustainability coordinator, Ian Houseal, who is being paid $50,000 a year for three years. About $400,000 would be used to help pay off the 15-year loan.

Houseal couldn’t be reached for comment on Monday. He has said it would take up to two years to complete the energy-saving renovations.

If the renovations failed to generate the promised level of savings, Ameresco would pay the difference. The $150,000 cost of the energy audit would be rolled into Ameresco’s contract to do the renovations. If the city declines to hire Ameresco, the city must pay for the audit separately.

Portland now spends about $8 million a year to heat and light its city and school buildings. The bulk of savings would be generated by converting heating systems from oil to natural gas, installing energy-efficient lights and centralized controls for lighting, heating and refrigeration systems.

Other proposed improvements include water conservation measures, solar water heaters and a solar photovoltaic system that would generate electricity at Portland Arts and Technology High School.

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:
kbouchard@pressherald.com
 

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