Mount Abe eyes energy upgrades

BRISTOL — As officials in the Mount Abraham Unified School District mull the possibility of proposing a fourth bond to renovate Mount Abraham Union Middle/High School, a group of 5-Town energy committee members have come up with a proposal of their own.
It’s called “performance contracting,” and it’s touted as a no-money-down, pays-for-itself strategy for increasing energy efficiency.
“We’ve been looking at the performance contracting concept as a way to pay for improving our schools, through saving energy,” said Starksboro Energy Committee chair Richard Faesy during a May 28 presentation to the MAUSD board. “The concept is basically that we have firms that are willing to come in and take the risk that their energy improvements will generate enough savings to bring that forward and invest millions of dollars in our schools.”
Faesy cited the Vergennes-area Addison Northwest School District (ANWSD) as a successful example of the practice.
In March 2018, ANWSD voters approved a $7.63 million bond to upgrade the district’s school buildings, including:
•converting to LED lighting.
•building a 74-watt solar array.
•installing more efficient HVAC controls.
•switching from fuel oil to natural gas.
•replacing boilers.
But because of projected energy savings and the retirement next year of a previous renovation bond, the new bond was not expected to increase the burden on taxpayers.
MAUSD board member Caleb Elder (Starksboro) was intrigued.
“This has the potential to be a great opportunity,” he told the Independentlast week. “We’ve heard loud and clear from the voters that cost is an issue where bonds are concerned. They need a stronger proposition than the ones we’ve given them.”
Elder said he plans to continue investigating the idea.
MAUSD Superintendent Patrick Reen was more cautious, and wondered aloud at the June 25 board meeting about the “political ramifications” of proposing a bond for energy efficiency, then turning around and asking for big money to fix up Mount Abe.
Since 2014 the school district has three times asked 5-Town voters to approve multi-million-dollar bonds to renovate the 50-year-old high school, and the voters have three times turned it down.
“While I still have some questions about performance contracting I am not at all opposed to exploring the idea,” Reen told the Independentin an email. “For me the concern is pursuing energy efficiency as a stand alone pursuit outside of the larger context of our facilities needs. It seems clear to me conversations about the larger facilities context will begin in the 2019–20 school year, with an emphasis on community engagement. As these conversations evolve into action I think performance contracting should certainly be considered.”
Some key issues make it difficult to draw comparisons between Bristol-area schools with the Vergennes-area schools, however. Chief among them is access to natural gas service.
Switching from fuel oil to gas has resulted in the greatest portion of the ANWSD’s energy savings, said ANWSD Facilities Director Ken Sullivan.
Bristol, on the other hand, lacks gas service, and does not expect to have it anytime soon, if at all.
This past March, the Bristol selectboard, which was a co-defendant in a lawsuit aimed at blocking the construction of a gas distribution pipeline, withdrew from a license agreement it had signed with Vermont Gas Systems the year before.
Still, Sullivan said, electricity-only upgrades might make sense for MAUSD.
“Over the past year our four (ANWSD) schools combined have saved $35,000 in electricity costs, just from the conversion to LED lights and adding new HVAC controls,” he said.
The big question for Sullivan is how much infrastructure at Mount Abe would need upgrading before a project like this could work.
“When there’s a lot of stuff needing fixing, the risk is that the principal ends up covering deferred maintenance costs,” he said. “It might be a hard sell.”
The Independentwas unable to reach MAUSD Facilities Director Joel FitzGerald for comment in time for this story.
Supporters of performance contracting in the 5-Towns are urging the MAUSD to invite Mike Davey of New Hampshire–based Energy Efficiency Investments (EEI), who oversaw the ANWSD project, to give a presentation.
“Schools have used this in different ways,” Davey told the Independent, citing recent EEI projects in Mill River and Bennington in Vermont and Plymouth, N.H.
In Plymouth, Davey said, the school district began by making budget-neutral HVAC and lighting upgrades, then were able the following year to approach taxpayers with a smaller bond for other work.
In Bennington, Davey pitched a number of options to a school board subcommittee as part of an overall facilities assessment. Ultimately the school district chose to incorporate performance contracting into a window-replacement project, which was paid for in part by the resulting energy savings.
Knowing what he does about MAUSD’s recent bond history, however, Davey cautioned that this would not be a “panacea” for the school district.
“It’s not a magic bullet to get a $25 million bond passed.”
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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