Facing tight budgets, dwindling state aid and a 2 percent property-tax cap, Long Island's school districts are focused on taming energy costs.
The Long Island Power Authority last year gave public and private schools nearly $2 million in rebates for energy-efficiency upgrades -- nearly double the previous year.
Projects range from replacing old lights and windows and investing in heating and ventilation systems to installing solar panels and considering the purchase of natural-gas-powered buses.
At Center Moriches High School, a flat-screen monitor in the hallway charts the daily energy generated by newly installed roof solar panels. On sunny days that electricity can provide 35 kilowatts to power the school's media center.
The solar panels are expected to save more than $8,000 in energy costs each year and are just one facet of the small Suffolk County district's energy performance program -- an overall effort projected to save more than $2 million over the next 15 years.
"Any time that we can do something that saves the district money, ultimately it saves the taxpayer money and gives us the opportunity to do more for our students," said Joseph McHeffey, president of the district's board of education. "Couple that with anything that's green. . . . It's a win-win-win for everybody."
Since 2006, LIPA has provided rebates to 60 schools to install solar panels.
Schools "are getting the message that energy efficiency is a savings directly for their constituents, and those savings can then be used for actual programs. Without increasing the budget, you get a double benefit. You lower your energy costs and you can utilize those savings for programs," said Michael Deering, LIPA's vice president for environmental affairs.
The state Department of Education is pushing energy initiatives, too. Last month, Commissioner John King Jr. announced that for the first time, public and private schools in New York will be invited to participate in the federal Green Ribbon Schools program to recognize "schools that save energy, reduce costs, feature environmentally sustainable learning spaces, protect health, foster wellness and offer environmental education to boost academic achievement and community engagement."
The state will accept district nominations until Feb. 24 and will submit up to four to the U.S. Department of Education in March. National winners will be announced in April.
New buses on agenda
The Connetquot school district is looking into using buses fueled by natural gas. The district -- along with several others, including the Farmingdale and Half Hollow Hills districts -- also has installed heating systems that operate on either oil or natural gas, and can run on whichever costs less.
Proponents say these projects pay for themselves, mostly through energy savings in future years. Rebates cut the cost, and some districts are able to pay for projects out of capital funds.
"The cost of gasoline and heating oil for the schools is a major area of concern along with the major cost-drivers that are beyond the control of school districts, such as pension costs and health insurance costs," said Gary Bixhorn, chief operating officer of Eastern Suffolk BOCES, which runs a regional transportation program that serves 72 districts.
Center Moriches secured a bond to cover the $2.8-million cost of its districtwide energy performance contract, which includes installing new windows and doors and replacing all lights. Overall, the projects, completed without taxpayer dollars, should generate more than $172,000 in savings per year, school officials said.
Farmingdale completed a boiler upgrade in the 2009-10 school year, converting to dual fuel and a more efficient system. The $3.8-million cost was funded through a state grant.
"It gave us an opportunity to shop the market," said Paul Defendini, Farmingdale's assistant superintendent for business. The district, using natural gas nearly exclusively, saved nearly $90,000 in the first year of use and another $90,000 in the second year, he said.
The Connetquot school district may convert its buses to a natural gas fleet but would like to see more from federal or state grants to help offset costs.
The district has solicited proposals from companies to install natural gas pumps and replace its diesel-fueled buses with those that run on natural gas.
Connetquot runs its own fleet of 160 school buses.
"We are looking to switch to natural gas for a number of reasons," Superintendent Alan Groveman said. "First, over the last few years it has been inherently less expensive to use natural gas. Second, natural gas is found within the United States and not subject to import pressures. And third, it is a cleaner fuel and better for the country."